A series of interviews with hard-working writers – by another hard-working writer!
by Kelly Jo Brick
Aspiring writers often wonder how the pros got where they are. The truth is, everyone’s story is different, but there are some common elements: dedication, persistence and hard work.
Writer Craig Silverstein (TURN: WASHINGTON’S SPIES, NIKITA) built the foundations for his writing career back during his days at the University of Michigan where he had the great fortune to study under screenwriter Jim Burnstein (Renaissance Man, D3: The Mighty Ducks).
WHEN DID YOU FIRST KNOW YOU WANTED TO BE A WRITER?
The first time that I said I wanted to write movies was when I walked out of seeing Ghostbusters, I was ten. I think I tugged on my mom’s sleeve and said, “I want to write movies.” A couple years after that, I made some movies with my friends in middle school and high school. They were pretty elaborate for the time. We composed our scores for them and everything. It was all VHS. We edited it on decks and stuff.
HOW DID YOUR COLLEGE EXPERIENCE HELP YOU GROW AS A WRITER?
Jim Burnstein was a working Hollywood screenwriter who lived in Michigan. I think his class is the one that really changed my life and then also changed the whole film and television program at the University of Michigan. Literally, the script that I wrote in his class, is the one that I got a job off of out here. Not right away, but down the line and not even rewritten.
The school was primarily a theory and criticism kind of school, but everybody who goes to film school wants to make movies. The way they distinguished themselves is with that writing program spearheaded by Jim. The key point was that you wrote a feature length screenplay in one semester, which was not being offered anywhere at undergraduate level as far as I knew.
In this you had to write the entire thing. You had to write your outline, and learn, but you had to have a feature length screenplay done by the end of the semester. Then the most revolutionary thing he did was he had this class called Screenwriting 2. Screenwriting 2, all you did was rewrite the script you wrote in Screenwriting 1.
WHAT WAS YOUR FIRST INDUSTRY JOB?
I was the assistant to these two producers, Harvey Kahn and Jonas Goodman on an independent feature called The Break Up starring Bridget Fonda and Kiefer Sutherland. It was a few months since I had arrived and I was starting to freak out. The money that I had come out with was pretty much gone. Then this guy said, “Oh, they’re looking. The producers on it are looking for somebody.” And that’s how it happens.
Actually the best job I had while trying to become a writer was I worked for Lucas Film THX in something called TAP, which is their Theater Alignment Program. What it was, was the studios hiring TXH to check the work of the labs. Technicolor, Deluxe, whatever. They have a movie coming out. They’re producing all these reels. And the job was watching these individual reels of these movies. Literally the job was just you in a theater, at the screening rooms at the labs and a projectionist and that’s it. And you’re just watching these reels. My shift was from midnight to 8am.
WHEN DID YOUR WRITING CAREER REALLY START TO TAKE OFF?
So a friend of mine, her friend at the time was Bryan Singer’s assistant and he was prepping the first X-Men movie. She gave my script, that same script that I wrote in that class, to her high school friend who was out here too. He read it and gave it to Bryan Singer and Bryan Singer wanted to produce it.
The fact that Bryan Singer was interested in my script, even if not for him to direct, was the thing that got me an agent. By the way, the deal never came together, but the fact is for like three or four days when he was interested, I met with a few agents and I signed with one of them, at a kind of midsized agency.
Even when I signed with them it was still another year until I actually got that first writing job . During that year, I continued to get the THX shifts that I could and try to write. I did stress out and I gave myself an ulcer at a very young age, at like 24, 25, I had a flare up of ulcerative colitis. I was in the hospital and it was a real big wake up call for me. I was fed through IV, they took me off of food.
It really ended up being a great thing because I came out of there going, “Oh wow, okay, hold on. Calm down. Maybe you’re not going to make it right away, but you definitely don’t want to be in the hospital so just calm down. Do whatever you need to do. Work at Starbucks, just keep writing your shit. Don’t set a time limit on it.” I don’t know if it’s because my mindset changed, but within 6 months I had my first writing job.
TELL US ABOUT THAT FIRST WRITING JOB.
It was from that same script. You know things kind of come around and what happened was those agents used to represent a guy, Matt Greenberg, who they were still friendly with. He was a feature writer who had started up his own television show called The Invisible Man. He had written this two hour pilot. They made it. They were going to series. He had never done TV before, so he was very comfortable reading a feature spec, which is how my script was sent to him. I got the call, it was like, “This guy has read your script. He likes it. He’d like you to come in and pitch ideas for The Invisible Man, maybe to be on staff.”
I read his script. I loved it. I came up with 6 ideas for episodes, two of which I thought were very good. I went in and I met with Matt and he was very nice and I pitched him these things and he loved these two or really one of them and said, “Look, you have no credits so I can’t hire you on staff because the positions that they were looking for were a Supervising Producer position and a Story Editor position. They couldn’t hire me as a Story Editor, having not done anything. But he said, “We’ll definitely, no matter what happens, buy that story and you can write the script or at the very least, buy the story.”
And what happened was they ended up hiring me on staff because they ended up breaking the story editor position into two term writer staff positions. Which is you’re paid scale, which was ten times more than I had ever been paid anything, but it’s a 6 week trial and it’s their option at the end of 6 weeks of what to do. If you make it through the 6 weeks, you get an additional 14 weeks.
One of the coolest things ever, was when I got the call that I was going to start on the show, it was on a Sunday, I was at Technicolor on a THX shift and I was in the theater by myself. I got this call from Matt and he said, “You know what, you’re going to start tomorrow. It’s at Universal.” And I’m like, “I’m at Universal, that’s where Technicolor is.”
On my first day as a paid writer, I pulled in to the same guest lot at Universal. The same exact spot that I had parked the day before, but instead of getting out and going left into Technicolor, I walked right, into the Universal lot and that place. I knew I had 6 weeks to prove myself and so I wrote this script and got picked up for 14 weeks and never looked back.
WHAT WAS SOME OF THE BEST ADVICE YOU GOT AS YOU WERE STARTING OUT?
So much I learned, I learned from the guy who ran the Invisible Man after Matt Greenberg left. David Levinson came in and became my mentor. One of the things he did was show me how you could be yourself, a very real person and still do it. You didn’t have to put on or be a certain kind of way or act a certain kind of way in order to do it. He had stripped away so much of the politics and you know, he had a desk a computer and a phone, and he’s like, “This is all you need to run a show.”
Coming soon – more from Craig on becoming a showrunner and what he looks for when hiring writers.
Kelly Jo Brick is a Contributing Editor at TVWriter™. She’s a television and documentary writer and producer, as well as a winner of Scriptapalooza TV and a Sundance Fellow. Read more about her HERE.