Phillip Datz

How I Almost Became A Screenwriter

And Why You Should Pursue Your Childhood Dream For A Month.

Growing up, I used to visit our pet store in Menlo Park, California once every month.

This was about the same time that Jurassic Park was released and I was pretty convinced that they sold dinosaurs in the back.

Sometimes, I would return home with a new creature who became part of our family. Hermit Crabs… Siamese Fish… Lizards… Mice…

I was that kid.


My Secret Adventures At UCLA

When I went to college at UCLA, I started to visit pet stores again.

During my sophomore year, I bought two iguanas during a trip to Petco in Santa Monica, California.

My college roommate, Thomas, actually supported my iguana purchase and agreed to raise the reptiles with me.

We named them Pablo and Honey, in honor of our favorite Jerky Boys skit — which nobody else had heard.

Weeks later, Pablo and Honey were stolen from our apartment during a Thanksgiving Break robbery — along with a few laptops and other non-reptilian things.

I never solved the crime. And that was my last visit to a pet store at UCLA.


I Had To Pick A Career

Years after the iguana incident—as I prepared for my college graduation— I had to decide whether to pursue a career in film or technology.

The English major in me loved the idea of pursuing film. It was a dying industry, which felt pretty rebellious to me, and I could be an artist.

But then there was technology — an industry that I also loved, which was probably a more practical version of life.

I grew up in Silicon Valley, and my internship at a startup called Protrade (acquired by Yahoo) was one of the most inspiring experiences of my life.

I was really fucking confused.


I Didn’t Have To Make The Choice

Right before UCLA ended, I applied to The Peter Stark Producing Program at USC, the most competitive film program in the world.

The program is run by the legendary Larry Turman, who produced The Graduate in 1967 (my favorite film) and still teaches at 86 years old.

25 students are selected from around the world to become Creative Executives in Film, Television, and New Media — and are referred to as “Starkies” by everyone in the industry.

On my application, I wrote a ridiculous essay about what it felt like to be dumped by three girlfriends in a row, which actually happened.

I promised to make funny movies about guys with broken hearts that were inspired by films like High Fidelity.

To my surprise, I received a phone call from USC telling me that they wanted me to join the program.

Who could reject someone who had been dumped three times in a row?


Do You Want To Become An Artist or a Suit?

When the Stark Program started, I promised myself that I would focus on finding a job as a film or television executive.

This was a pretty major decision because many Starkies became screenwriters and directors — and pursued careers as artists.

Napoleon Dynamite was written by Starkies who were two years older than me. There were many other crazy stories just like this.

But there I was, wanting to pursue a more reliable career path, even though I was an artist at heart.


During my 1st year at USC, I worked part-time in Film Development at Overture Films, a new movie studio funded by Liberty Media.

We were capitalized at $300 million, with a mandate to make or acquire 8 to 12 movies a year, with budgets under $25 million.

Studios like Warner Independent, New Line, and Paramount Vantage had died and the industry was desperate for new capital.

Overture Films was essentially a startup with $300 million to create amazing stories — this was a huge opportunity.

The entire industry was curious to see how this our studio would perform.


Weren’t You Still At Graduate School?

Yes. I was still at graduate school. I just didn’t have a life.

I attended classes for 50+ hours per week and worked for 25+ hours per week, while commuting from downtown LA to Santa Monica.

I was sleeping 5 hours most nights, playing too much Fifa on my Xbox, and eating too much Zankou chicken.

I also had adult braces at the time, which kept me out of trouble. I highly recommend braces when you need to focus.


Something Not So Awesome

My part-time job ended and I applied at Overture for a full-time job.

I interviewed like a champ that day and I drove home feeling like a film-executive-to-be.

A day later, I received a call saying that I lost the job to someone who wasn’t still in graduate school and could commit his life to the role.

After pulling 80 hour weeks for 6 months, I had no full-time job — and a month to kill before our 2nd year of classes began.

I was devastated.


When You Have A Month To Kill

When you have a month to kill, you can pretty much do whatever you want — assuming you pay your bills.

One night, I was drinking whiskey with a screenwriter named Greg Russo.

I told Greg that I had a month to kill, which is when he asked a very simple question:

“What did you dream of becoming as a kid? Why don’t you do that for a month?

I took a sip of my whiskey and thought about what I dreamed of becoming as a kid.

“I loved to write when I was a kid. I could literally sit in a room and write for hours. And I dreamed about writing movies.”

Greg told me that he would teach me how to write screenplays, and asked me to meet at his apartment the next day.


What Is A Real Screenwriter?

Greg was a real screenwriter — the type of guy who can sit at his laptop and write 30 perfect pages in a single night.

Most writers I meet can type about 1 shitty page every night, so I knew he was pretty good.

Greg had just moved to Los Angeles from New Jersey with his wife, Trish, who was one of my classmates at USC Film School.

He studied at Vassar College where Noah Baumbach (The Life Aquatic, The Squid and The Whale) taught his screenwriting class.

The guy was legit.


On our first day writing, I walked into Greg’s apartment and awkwardly asked how we should get started.

We spent the first day talking about film genres that we loved.

We started talking about which movies we loved growing up: The Goonies and Jumanji were at the top of both our lists.

In more of the more bizarre moments of my life, Greg told me that he loved going to pet stores growing up.

“What the fuck?!?! Pet stores?!?! Me too!” was all that I could say.

I had crazy flashbacks of Siamese Fish, Mice, Lizards — and those fucking iguanas.

We had a long conversation about pet stores and why they felt so magical to us as kids.

And then we came up with a script concept that we both loved.


Our story was about a secret pet store in Brooklyn that contained the rarest and most amazing creatures to ever exist.

As the story started, two teenagers named Sam and Mel (brother and sister) accidentally let the animals out of their cages.

The animals roamed the streets of New York City, destroying everything they touch.

The future of New York City depends on the brother and sister, who attempt to save the world — while telling jokes for 90 minutes.

We wanted our story to have intelligent dialogue, quirky settings, and things that would make Wes Anderson proud.


Greg and I wrote the first draft of Wild Animals in a month — which is a pretty amazing pace for any script.

When we typed FADE OUT, I sent the script to the only manager I knew in Los Angeles, Dan Halsted.

Dan produced two of my favorite movies ever — The Virgin Suicides and Garden State — and I convinced him to read our story.

Less than 24 hours after submitting the script, we received a phone call that changed my life, or at least my month.

Dan loved our script and wanted to grab breakfast with us the next morning.

While eating breakfast burritos in West Hollywood, Greg and I agreed to a representation contract with Dan, which was huge for us.

The producer of Garden State wanted to sell our screenplay about an exotic pet store in Brooklyn.

What the fuck was happening?! Was this real life?!


Will You Buy Our Screenplay?

Wild Animals was submitted to every major studio and producer in Hollywood — and the reaction usually went like this:

“It’s a cute story, but family films just aren’t my thing.”

That changed with one phone call.

A producer named Gary Foster loved our story and thought it could become an amazing summer comedy.

Gary had produced real movies like Sleepless in Seattle, Tin Cup, and The Soloist — and now he wanted to develop our script at Sony Pictures.


Our First Story Meeting at Sony Pictures

Greg and I drove to Culver City in his bright-red vintage Mercedes S-300 convertible.

We walked into Gary Foster’s office at Sony and were offered bottled Perrier — this is how most story development meetings begin.

I wore a brown blazer jacket which was too small because I ordered it on eBay. My arm movement was pretty restricted.

That’s all I remember. The rest is pretty much a blur.

Greg and I got back in his car, and we just started cracking up.

How the fuck were we at Sony talking about exotic animals with famous movie producers?

This was all too ridiculous.


The Part of Writing That Really Sucks

Greg and I wrote four “Page One” re-writes in about three months.

A “Page One” re-write means you literally start the entire script over from the first page.

In Silicon Valley terms: it’s like erasing your entire code base and building a new product, while loosely maintaining the original concept.

Now imagine doing that four times.

It was the most painful process of my life.


Our cute little Brooklyn pet store became the New York Zoo and the script title became Where Kingdoms Collide.

This was an attempt to make the story feel bigger — which would be more appealing to financiers than a quirky little pet store.

Nobody is to blame. That is just how story development process goes.

It’s just like when you have to pivot your startup really quickly in Silicon Valley.

More often than not, the new version won’t work, but you have to keep trying.


During our last meeting on the Sony Lot, I couldn’t even read our pages out loud.

We had been through so many plot twists and story arcs and heroes— and I hated every word that remained. This was not my childhood dream.

We eventually gave up on Wild Animals (I refused to call it When Kingdoms Collide) after five drafts, which was a huge relief.

Writing my first screenplay was one of most exciting experience of my life, but it wasn’t what I wanted to do.


What Happened After Wild Animals?

Greg and I wrote a PG-13 comedy called 12 Days of Christmas, which was inspired by Bad Santa and Liar Liar.

The story never sold, but I was very proud of what we had accomplished together as a writing team.

Greg became a very successful screenwriter and has sold over 5 screenplays to major film studios.

He is a real screenwriter.


And… I Chose The Tech Industry

During my 2nd year at USC, I fell in love with technology again and pursued a different career path than my classmates.

About a year after graduation, I moved home to San Francisco and have worked at several amazing companies in the tech space.

I feel like I’m living my dream every single day —even though it’s not my exact childhood dream.

And I still visit pet stores occasionally.


Here’s my advice after it all — and I’m not a fucking life coach, so don’t take this too seriously.

If you ever have free time or think there is something that you want to pursue, ask yourself a simple question:

“What did I dream of becoming as a kid?”

Think about what you actually loved to do when you didn’t worry about rent checks and social validation and all that shit.

Do something that will bring you closer to that original dream.

I got to live in an imaginary pet store for a month and write screenplays.

Now it’s your turn.