How I Died Hard and Accidentally Became a Writer
Once upon a time, there was a naïve little ginger who wanted to work in Hollywood and make movies. With dreams of being a “D Girl” in her head, she enrolled in film school, traipsed off to LA, and got an internship with a successful production company called Village Roadshow Pictures. She was right on track for the career she wanted, greenlighting pictures, offering notes on scripts, and helping to make movies that would impact people’s lives as much as they impacted her.
During that initial internship, certain aspects of the gig came very easy to her. What you may not know about the development business is that you spend the vast majority of your time reading scripts. Someday, if you work very hard, you don’t have to read every script. Instead you can read what is called coverage, then decide if a screenplay is worth your time. Coverage is a two or three page document containing a synopsis of the script followed by a notes section suggesting improvements or pointing out strong suits of the text.
The reading part came naturally. Her fellow interns mocked her speed, as she could breeze through a 120-page script in roughly an hour. A longtime bookworm, this wasn’t surprising. What was surprising was how quickly the writing came. Between reading and writing, she could turn around coverage in less than two hours. Moreover, according to the intern coordinator, it wasn’t bad. Unlike many of her current friends (ahem, ahem I’m…er…she’s looking at you, JDN), he thought she had good taste and he found her coverage easy to read. So, he did something he had never done before. He offered her a job as one of the company’s freelance script readers.
But there was one task she had to complete first. As an intern, she had to go through a list of seminal films compiled by her boss and highlight what she had and hadn’t seen. One of the movies on that list was Die Hard.
She had some sense of Die Hard’s importance in film culture, but being a bit action-averse, she never bothered to watch it. That was about to change. Her boss called her into the office and in all seriousness told her she couldn’t have the reader job until she saw this movie. She thought he was kidding. He wasn’t.
The man had a point. When Die Hard came out in 1988, it changed the movie landscape in a way unseen since a decade prior with the success of Jaws and Star Wars. The movie has spawned over two decades of high concept action films. If you are wondering what “high concept” means, you probably understand its meaning without even realizing it. High concept movies are the ones with easy to explain set-ups or stories. The types of movies that can be pitched in meetings with a single sentence:
“It’s Die Hard, but on a bus!”
“What if we found a way to create dinosaurs today?”
“So we’ve got these snakes…and there is a plane.”
You see what is going on here? Die Hard is largely credited with spawning this trend, and justifiably so. Once the girl watched the movie, she realized how much every other action film since drew from it. This was particularly important given Village Roadshow’s business plan. The company worked as a co-financier with Warner Brothers, putting up money for flicks like The Matrix, Oceans 11, and Happy Feet. Their profit sharing arrangement relied heavy on international grosses, so these high concept movies with worldwide appeal were their bread and butter. It was true. The girl really had to watch Die Hard in order to effectively understand what they were looking for.
She reported back to her boss that her movie-watching mission was accomplished and her work as a reader began. Though the name of the position doesn’t convey it, it was her first professional writing gig. In an attempt to be part of the movie business, she inadvertently launched her career as a writer.
Two or three times a week, she would crank out coverage for the company in between classes at college. She gradually added more clients, like MTV Films. By the end of school, she was reading three or four scripts a week and frequently MTV would send her novels to cover over the weekend. All told, she was cranking out around 15 pages of single spaced text a week, not to mention writing papers and taking largely essay-based tests.
In that time when she did not even realize she was a writer, she learned a lot about what the job took beyond simple mechanics. She learned the hard way that, for many people, a single typo destroys your credibility. She learned that missing a deadline by more than five minutes is simply not an option. She learned to be economical with her words, condensing 120 pages of content down to a page and a half long book report. And, she got to read work by screenwriters who won Academy Awards and see firsthand exactly how someone can put something to page so effectively, that an amazing movie can be created from it.
For the most part though, the scripts were typically terrible. For every film that was on the fast track to production and deservedly so, there were five terrible scripts with astonishingly bad premises. This was during the height of popularity of the “mind fuck” movie, a genre the girl particularly detested and took a certain amount of glee in ripping apart in the comments section.
However, after two years of reading gigs and nine months as a Hollywood assistant, all the dreck began to take its toll on her. As she saw bad movies get the greenlight while great movies were left unproduced, she realized loving movies wasn’t enough to be a D girl. You needed a certain ruthlessness she did not possess to succeed. Once you got beyond the status of reader, where you were expected to say no to most things, you had to become a yes man. This girl always had a problem saying yes when no seemed like a much better option.
So she quit and moved home. It didn’t feel like she failed at the time. She was just so happy to be away from that world, she didn’t really notice she had no money, nothing more than a job at Blockbuster, no prospects, and, most importantly, no skill set.
In time though, she came to realize two things. One, yes, she did fail when it came to being a successful movie executive. She gave up and got weeded out like so many others. That is okay though. Because the other thing she realized was that she had all the training she needed to be a writer. The first conclusion came rather easily. The second one was more stubborn, or perhaps she was. It took a stint as an instructor for Kaplan, two years in grad school cranking out papers, developing new media content for an industrial ceiling fan company, and a good year or so in the poker world before she realized each of these positions required one major thing from her: the ability to write.
That day when she decided to watch Die Hard and take a job set her on a path she never intended to go down. From that point, basically everything she was hired to do was contingent upon writing. She still isn’t sure how she feels about this. She never has a burning desire to write. She avoids words like journalist and author, considering it demeaning to those who actually pursue such professions. Yet, here she is. There seems to be only one thing people want to pay her to do, so, completely by accident, she is a writer.