After 8 Years, I Have Returned to Screenwriting
My Long Journey Back to Writing for the Movies
In the fall of 2016, one of my MFA professors sat me down in his office and told me something complimentary about my newest story I had recently turned into his class. “Your writing is super cinematic,” he said. “I could visualize the movie in every scene.” And then he asked me a question I never could have expected: “Have you ever thought about writing a screenplay?”
I laughed, I couldn’t help myself. Yes, I had thought about writing a screenplay. I’d done a little more than that, as a matter of fact.
Between 2001 and 2010 I wrote seven feature-length screenplays and probably thirty to forty short screenplays, many of which I turned into movies. I made short films all throughout high school, culminating into a 92-minute feature film I made over the course of eight months during my senior year.
After that, I studied film production at Loyola Marymount University for four years, making a ton of short movies, including a documentary about actors I made in Germany, and a senior year thesis horror film I shot on 16mm.
When my film school experience ended in 2007, I continued making movies, and also wrote three feature-length screenplays I submitted to contests in 2008 and 2009.
It wasn’t until 2010 that I wrote my first novel, Slate, and turned my full creative attention to fiction writing. In early 2011 I left Los Angeles and returned to Reno, and ever since I have been working on novels and short stories, pitching my work to agents and editors.
I left my film work behind — for good.
Outside of the occasional film production class for teenagers I’ve taught in Reno, as well as a couple of films I made during my graduate school experience, my work in both movie production and screenwriting were behind me. I didn’t even let myself think about writing another screenplay. There was never a temptation. Never a fleeting thought about trying it again. My focus was to remain on fiction, and only fiction.
My feeling about the matter was that I had left L.A., and by driving out of that city, I had officially kissed good-bye to any potential career in the film world. And I was okay with that. As long as I was telling stories, and being creative every single day, I was happy. And the world of fiction has been more than fulfilling.
It’s been a way of life for nearly a decade.
So when this professor asked me this question, I simply told him about my film school experience, and that I had written a few screenplays over the years, but that lately my sole focus was fiction writing. He said he understood, but that I should at least consider giving screenwriting another try. He said he thought I could be great at it. I told him I didn’t live in L.A. anymore, so what would be the point? He said he had sold a few scripts over the years, and that he, of course, lived in Reno, and not Los Angeles. He said it was harder to get screenplays sold when you’re not in L.A., but certainly not impossible, and that if I wrote consistently excellent work and pitched the right managers and entered the right contests, I could absolutely get noticed.
I left the meeting and sat down for lunch and thought about the possibility of writing a screenplay for the first time in six years. The last time I had spent time writing and revising a script had been March 2010, right before I moved on to writing my first novel in April and May of the same year.
I surfed the web. Read probably twenty articles about the same subject: Can you be a screenwriter if you don’t live near Hollywood? Most of them, of course, say it’s difficult. That if you’re serious about screenwriting, you need to live in L.A., no ifs, ands, or buts.
But the articles pointed out plenty of talented screenwriters who live in different parts of the country, even a few who live in other countries, who have sold scripts over the years and had their work turned into movies.
I shoved my elbows against the table and thought about it for a few minutes.
Could I? Should I?
It’d been so long I’d actually sort of forgotten how to do it. But I was still obsessed with movies, still idolized film as much as literature, and the thought occurred to me: what if I could write a screenplay now, after all these years of writing fiction, that was infinitely better than any of those screenplays I wrote back in my early to mid twenties?
I wasn’t going to give screenwriting all my focus. I was busy querying a novel, revising a second novel, and planning my MFA thesis novel to be written in 2017. But I had four quiet weeks over winter break to do something creative, and when no short story ideas leaped out at me, the idea of attempting a new screenplay was too seductive to ignore.
I paid for Final Draft, learned the basics of the software (I had only written scripts on Movie Magic Screenwriter back in the day), and borrowed about ten printed screenplays from the UNR library.
I re-taught myself fast how to write a screenplay.
And during that time, I decided on the script I wanted to write. It would be a good way to re-immerse myself in the screenwriting world. I was going to adapt my most cinematic novel to date, the one that got me 20 requests earlier in the year, the story I loved and wanted to spend another few weeks telling again, in an entirely new way. My horror story Toothache, about a teen girl trying to solve her teacher’s grisly murder, became the first feature-length screenplay I’d written in six-and-a-half years, and in early 2017, at the end of winter break, with just a couple days to go before the new semester, I wrote the final scene of the Toothache script and typed, CUT TO BLACK.
Then I moved on. I made it through my toughest semester ever as a graduate student. I spent that summer essentially locked in my room writing the first draft of my MFA thesis. In the fall of 2017, I revised my thesis novel, which needed about 50,000 words cut from its first draft and 20,000 new words written from scratch.
And then another winter break arrived, my final one ever as a graduate student. I was exhausted. I needed to let my thesis novel rest for a few weeks, and so I decided if I was going to work on a creative project during these four weeks, it had to be something new and different. I was in no mood to write a new short story. I had no more novels in me, at least for a year.
And that’s when I remembered. Toothache.
The first draft of the screenplay was sitting on my hard drive waiting for me to return to it. I hadn’t looked at it in eleven months, and it was revision time.
But I didn’t want to only revise this screenplay over winter break. I looked into screenwriting contests and discovered most of them had early deadlines between January and March. This was the time of year to submit your script, but in some respects, no matter how much I loved the story of Toothache, writing that script was in a sense a practice round, a way to get back into the screenwriting groove. Over winter break, I wanted to not only revise that script to my heart’s content, but also write something new. Something exciting and groundbreaking.
Something not based on anything I’d written before.
I looked at the newly released 2017 Black List, the list of the best unproduced screenplays of the year. Someone had written a screenplay based on the life of John Hughes, which sounded like a fantastic read. I love Hughes, always have. And writing a script about a filmmaking hero of mine sounded particularly fun. Was there a director, or an actor, who I could write a movie about? What would the story be? What would the conflict be?
The idea hit me fast. Not only the script I needed to write, but also the shape of the story. I was going to write a movie about the early life of one of my favorite directors.
The guy is one of my heroes. I interned for his production company in 2007, I met him on two exciting occasions. I worshiped his films, especially A Nightmare on Elm Street and the Scream series. And I was particularly enamored by how he got his start.
Craven didn’t grow up making movies, or even hoping to make movies. He didn’t see his first film until he was in his twenties. He was a literature guy, one who wanted to be a teacher, and possibly a novelist. He taught humanities at the college level for five years. And it wasn’t until he was in his late twenties that he became interested in movies and decided, at a relatively late age, that he wanted to pursue film as a profession.
Craven also, surprisingly, had no interest in the horror genre. When the opportunity to make a film came to him, he was asked to make a scary movie. And so The Last House on the Left was born. And then Craven spent the next five years trying to get other kinds of films off the ground, to no avail, until he finally agreed to a producer’s demands and made the hugely successful The Hills Have Eyes.
And with that, he became a horror icon.
I loved Craven’s story. It was personal to me, the idea of a college professor who feels like he has something to offer to the world of film. The idea of wanting to create art outside of one genre, and not feel stuck in having to do the same thing over and over.
And so in 14 crazy whirlwind days at the very start of 2018, I wrote the first draft of Craven. It needed work afterward, of course. I spent the next six weeks doing four additional drafts, cutting a few scenes and adding two new ones, stripping down dialogue and making the supporting characters more three-dimensional.
By mid-February, I had drafts of both Toothache and Craven completed. Strong drafts I was super happy with.
And then, for the first time since 2010, I started sending them out.
I started submitting the projects to screenplay contests and L.A. literary managers.
Cut to May, cut to now. No, I haven’t sold either screenplay, as much as I’d love to end my story there. And I have no idea where my two scripts might place in the near future, since I don’t hear from any of the contests until this coming July at the earliest.
But some good news has arrived. Both scripts have received requests from literary managers, three for Toothache and five for Craven, and one production company has expressed interest in developing Craven into a film. A manager recently asked me if I had any other scripts for review, and so I sent him a newly revised version of my 2010 screenplay to Happy Birthday to Me, based on my most popular self-published novel.
What gave me the greatest pleasure in my screenwriting experience these last six months was simply this: I’ve had a blast. Writing Craven was probably the most fun I’ve had as a storyteller to date. To try to capture his essence and intelligence on the page, and tell what I believe is a fascinating Hollywood story, one that’s never been touched until now, was an incredibly fulfilling and humbling experience. Whether the script sells or not. Whether a movie ever gets made.
I learned that screenwriting is still in my blood, is still loads of fun.
I’m not turning my back on screenwriting again. Although my career as a fiction writer always takes center stage, I’m hopeful about what may come of Toothache and Craven, and I’m stoked, this coming summer, to write not just one — but two more new scripts.
Yep, two more are coming. The first is also an untold Hollywood story, this one about the tumultuous career of a famous, Oscar-nominated actress.
And the second is based on the short story my professor talked about in his office back in the fall of 2016, that one he thought was so compelling and cinematic.
The story he could easily visualize as a movie… might actually be a movie someday soon.
Brian Rowe is an author, teacher, book devotee, and film fanatic. He received his MFA in Creative Writing and MA in English from the University of Nevada, Reno, and his BA in Film Production from Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. He writes young adult and middle grade suspense novels, and is represented by Kortney Price of the Corvisiero Agency.