Jossea K. Rilea
Author + Dreamer
Adventures in Screenwriting 101
I wrote my first screenplay in 1997 at Middlebury College. I really thought I was going to sell a screenplay right out of college and make it big back then, and I did everything I could think of to break in, be seen and sell a script:
A well-known Hollywood manager once gave me a writing gig because he "really liked my voice." Not my writing voice, but my actual voice that I left on his voicemail. The writing assignment was supposed to be a “Teen-twist on NOTTING HILL” for a famous popstar for a major Hollywood studio. It fell apart after the popstar did a cameo on a TV show and everyone realized she couldn’t act.
I designed handbags for celebrities that went to the Oscars. My thought process for taking this job was that maybe I would meet someone during a trunk show in Beverly Hills who could get me in the door with an agent. It didn’t work. Stylists generally don’t hang out with literary types. It’s like a parallel universe. So close, yet so far.
I tried cold calling agents. I was shocked this one time when my call was put through to a bigwig agent, even though he was in the middle of a meeting. I wasn’t sure why, but he always took my calls. This went on for a few months. It wasn’t until he saw my photo online that he realized he was talking to me and not the other person with my old name, a Vegas prostitute, that he stopped taking my calls.
Coincidentally, I was born in the same hospital room as an assistant to a top Hollywood Mogul, aka "God." Like, what are the odds? I wondered if I had some pre-birth arrangement or contract with this kid that stated that he would help me sell a screenplay later in life. He did give me one shot, and connected me to an elite relative of the British Royal family, but nothing ever came of it. Does Karma always work out the way it's supposed to?
I was offered an internship at a boutique film company in Santa Monica but quit after only one day. The thing is, I realized very quickly that I’m a horrible secretary. A couple of years before this job, I got a concussion speedskating and I think it knocked out the part of my brain that remembers and recalls names "on-demand." Oh well. I can check that off my bucket list.
I dropped out of grad school in Vermont and drove across the country to Santa Monica using a student loan for a different grad school in Beverly Hills. I thought that maybe if I was physically in Los Angeles I would meet tons of people in person who could help launch my career. When I got there, I wasted most of my time sitting in traffic trying to get across town. I found out it was easier to meet important people when I lived 3,000 miles away.
As fate would have it, I became friends with a famous actor after meeting him in an online chatroom for filmmakers—a decade before Twitter. We chatted for two years. All that time I thought to myself, this is it. We are in love. So, while I was in LA, I snuck into his big Hollywood film premiere to surprise him, thinking that the moment he saw me it would be love at first sight and we would write and produce films together forever after. Well, he saw me. And we had a moment. It was a moment I will never forget. I remember he looked much shorter in person than he looked on the big screen. I later found out he was engaged to another woman and much to my disappointment, he chose her.
I was accepted into the AFI Conservatory Master of Fine Arts program. During my candidate interview, they asked me where I got my ideas from. I said mainly from real life and told them this story: I was just in Delaware at my cousin's wedding. I had been at the beach in the morning and on my way back to the hotel to change for the wedding, the car in front of mine hit a dog on the highway. I pulled over and was about to run out and rescue it when this huge man with a hook hand jumps over the highway fence, yells "I'll get him!" and drags the dog by the collar out of traffic. At that moment, another car pulls up to us and says, "Hop in! I'll drive you to the vet." So, the guy with the hook hand and I jump in the car with this total stranger, and I put the bleeding but breathing dog on my lap. We get to the vet and we wait. I see a penny on the ground and make a wish. A few minutes later the dog dies on the operating table but I have no time to process anything because I'm super late for the wedding. When I get to the hotel to change, it just so happens that there's a fireman's convention going on. All these firemen see me sprint through the door and up the stairs wearing blood stained clothes and a few minutes later run back down, all dressed up in formal wear. They all start cheering and clapping for me. I get to the church and sit down. When Ava Maria starts playing, that's when it hits me. I start bawling. And then it's like my tears are contagious. Everyone around me starts crying. It was a beautiful wedding. At the time, I really wished I had an extra 100K lying around to go to AFI because I thought it would be a worthwhile and fun experience. But during an informal Q&A I realized it might not be a smart investment. One student told me how hard it was to land meetings with agents because his professors were competing for the same slots. I decided not to attend and go grassroots instead.
I volunteered at Sundance for three years in a row. This one night I found myself sitting next to a not-yet but soon-to-be famous actor at some crazy rave at an old Utah mine listening to The Roots. I wish I had known who that innocent kid was going to turn out to be. But I didn’t. Because neither did he yet. Our conversation was like middle school mumble, mostly because he looked about 12 then and was embarrassed to find out he was wearing a volunteer Sundance hat. Oh, the horror.
I went to every other film fest and pitch festival I could afford to go to: Tribeca, Hamptons, Silverdocs, Hollywood Pitch Fest, etc. One memorable moment happened at the Manchester Film Festival in Vermont. It was a tiny festival with no budget. After a screenplay reading, the festival shuttle bus broke down so they had me, a volunteer, drive an older, dignified woman back to her hotel in my just-out-of-college rusty Subaru. Turns out she wrote the screenplay for the number-one movie in the US when I was 13 years old, a cult classic I must have watched 50 times as a teenager. Film festivals are super fun but after going through the FF circuit, I realized that I hate dark and depressing Indie films. We are not a good match for each other. I'm one of those people who actually likes commercial studio films with happy endings. So, I looked up "How to Sell Your Script to a Major Hollywood Studio" and that's when I wondered if maybe I should give up screenwriting altogether.
But I didn't give up. I wrote six screenplays. Some of them, I know, are absolute crap. Who writes something brilliant at age 20 straight out of college? Um, nobody unless you have a Y chromosome. But even so, I sat in a chair for more than 10,000 hours staring at my computer screen toiling away writing words on a page without pay just because of my passion for the craft, and with each script my writing got better.
"You have to put your time in," a famous female screenwriter told me at the Maui Writer's Conference. She wrote my favorite romantic comedy of all time and this was a meeting I really thought was going to get me somewhere. I had read up on her background and made a comment that her grandmother's well-known depression-era photograph was one of my favorites. She must have been impressed that I knew that because she wrote down her agents direct phone number in LA, gave it to me and said it was "credible currency." I called her agent. He never returned my call.
So, how does a newbie screenwriter get their work seen by agents? The standard go-to reply is that placing in a screenwriting contest is one way in. So I entered a bunch of them and one of my screenplays BLIND FOLLY was a quarterfinalist for the Nicholl Fellowship. What did this do for me? I'd say absolutely nothing really, except that I can say I placed in the Nicholl. Woo-hoo! No, actually, on second thought, what it did give to me was a little confidence and validation to keep going.
In what could potentially be seen as a mini-miracle, I finally received an option offer for my animation screenplays LONDON FROG from a small indie company. It was a deal but it was a really crappy deal. Since 99.9% of animation screenplays are written in-house, I tried to rationalize with my "go big or go home" brain that a deal was better than no deal. But it didn't work. There was no way I could convince myself to give my project away for mere pennies. I thought to myself, why do I continue this madness? Why not write my favorite screenplays into children’s books and then come back and try out this whole Hollywood thing again after they are finished.
Well, they're finished. It's been over a decade and a half since I left Hollywood. I’ve since published a bunch of children's books and hundreds of magazines. From day one of building my own projects, I didn't want to get bogged down again with all the Hollywood gate-keeper rejection shenanigans that I'm sure the publishing industry would have mimicked, so I created my company all by myself. I never sent any of my manuscripts out for review. Sometimes you just have to hack your way in. But it's easier to do that with books than with films.
I still have no idea how to break into Hollywood. Is it really just luck and that's it? At this point, I'm not sure what else I can do to be seen, get an agent, sell a screenplay and get my films made because I feel like I've tried everything already. But YOLO, right? So here I am again. I still need an agent. Or a magic wand. I think they might be the same thing.
So, how does my story end? I think it will go down in one of two ways: Either it's not in my stars for my stories to reach the masses. Or I get an agent and sell a spec screenplay to a major Hollywood studio. If I never make it, my story is about pursuing a dream. Millions of people pursue dreams. How many actually make it? Does that mean nobody should ever pursue them? If I get an agent, my story is about never giving up on a dream. Millions of people give up on their dreams too soon because they drop out the minute people tell them they suck.
Either way, the moral of the story is that life is a journey, not a destination. And just because I make it or I don't make it, doesn't fundamentally change who I am. In the process of trying to get to the other side of some invisible fence, I've had a lot of fun. And maybe that is the prize.
I’m in New York (state) and can be reached at here. Thank you!