Perhaps it’s another “nobody knows anything” sign about the unpredictability of Hollywood. Perhaps not. Either way, many of the writers, directors, and producers attending the Banff World Television Festival shared stories about breaking into the business that emphasized that while they might have gotten into the business a certain way, their way is "not the way to get a job.”
Hart Hanson – Bones
That’s a quote from Bones creator Hart Hanson, who was studying creative writing at the University of British Columbia when he and his girlfriend – now wife – discovered they were expecting a baby. He’d meant to become a novelist after his rock god aspirations didn’t pay off (“I'm a really crappy guitar player”), but had been forced to pick two other fields of study. One happened to be screenwriting.
Suddenly desperate to support a family and aware that writing the Great Canadian Novel wasn’t the quick road to riches (but screenwriting is?), he started faxing pitches to the long-running Vancouver-based The Beachcombers. After the 15th fax, the executive producer relented, inviting him for a meeting.
He doesn’t recommend that approach to aspiring writers, and not just because of the near-obsolescence of fax machines. However, it led to work on that half hour dramedy as well as a wide range of popular Canadian series, including family drama Road to Avonlea and Traders, the series he helped create with fellow Canuck-gone-Hollywood David Shore about the "scintillating and exciting" world of investment banking. “Researching it, I thought I’d developed narcolepsy,” he quipped.
Hollywood beckoned based on his Ally McBeal spec script, since “none of my Canadian scripts mattered a bit.” Hanson found himself on Cupid and forever pigeonholed in the U.S. as a light dramedy writer ("because I didn't write a Homicide spec").
Alan Poul – Swingtown and Six Feet Under
Swingtown and Six Feet Under executive producer and director Alan Poul graduated with a degree in Japanese literature thinking he'd end up writing musical theatre, while earning some money on the side as an expert on Japanese cinema. Then Paul Schrader approached him for help on the movie Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters because of his knowledge of the Japanese language and culture, promising to make Poul an associate producer on the film, "which I thought meant something. I learned differently later."
Poul was seduced by the idea of earning a living wage, plus as soon as he set foot on a soundstage in Tokyo, he realized he wanted to be a producer. He found himself known as "the Japan guy," finding work on movies like Black Rain until he aligned himself with Propaganda Films, which had a reputation for cultivating directorial talent.
His first foray into television was on Propaganda's anthology program Inside Out for the Playboy Channel ("kind of like an R-rated Twilight Zone"). There, because it was not under the aegis of the Directors Guild, he was able to hire and develop relationships with up-and-coming directors like Alexander Payne (Sideways), Antoine Fuqua (Training Day), and Jeffrey Reiner (Friday Night Lights).
David Hoselton – House
House writer David Hoselton credits his friends and the lucky number 12 for his successful transition to Hollywood (I’m sure he must have had a little something to do with it too). His University of Toronto law school friend Lorne Cameron had the "crazy" idea of writing a screenplay and selling it to Hollywood, which landed the pair an agent and some film writing gigs that turned into 18 years of such films as First Knight, Brother Bear, and Over the Hedge.
Another law school classmate was House creator David Shore. "He's probably the first guy I ever wrote anything with because we took over the law school newspaper," Hoselton recalled. "It was called The Law School Newspaper when we took it over. We thought we've got to be able to do better than that. We called it Hearsay."
When Shore was the showrunner on Family Law, he called his old law school friend in to pitch some story ideas. "I came up with 12 ideas, and he liked the 12th. Maybe he was just humouring me, I don't know." In any case, Hoselton wrote up the story for the show's fourth season … only to see it cancelled at the end of the third. "He said I owe you one," Hoselton recounted. "A couple years later he started House and said 'let's do it for real this time.' I came up with 12 ideas and he liked number 12."
Hoselton called working on House "the greatest job I've ever had, and I've had a lot of jobs. Working with David Shore is great, and he hired all people he likes and gets along with, and since I get along with him, all the writers on the staff are fantastic. It's a great job. I can't praise it enough.
"I guess the moral of that story is keep writing and in 20 years, it'll happen."
The Moral of This Story
Looking to break into Hollywood yourself? The lesson is clear. Have a dream. Or a friend with a dream. Or a Japanese literature degree. Or a pregnant girlfriend. Or …