Since Diablo Cody is my poster child (female) for a screenwriter coming from outside L.A. (and the original inspiration for this blog) then I think I’ll name Lawrence Kasden as the poster child (male) screenwriter from outside L.A. Kasden was raised in Morgantown, West Virginia. Quick, name another screenwriter from West Virginia.
(While Morgantown is the second largest city in West Virginia it only has about 30,000 residents not including the students at the University of West Virginia. My lasting memory of Morgantown goes back to 1994 when I was there for a video shoot and the news broke of O.J. Simpson’s famous low-speed police chase. I remember walking down the main drag and seeing restaurant/bar after restaurant/bar having the same helicopter shot of the Simposn’s white Ford Bronco on their TVs.)
Kasden left Morgantown to attend the University of Michigan where he was an English major. A gifted writer he would go on to win Hopwood Prize at UM for creative writing. In his 30s he became one of the most successful screenwriters in Hollywood with a string of box office hits— Star Wars: The Empire Strikes, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Body Heat and Star Wars: Return of the Jedi. He has also had three Oscar nominations for his screenwriting —Grand Canyon, The Accidental Tourist, and The Big Chill.
But what I think you’ll be interested in is that little period between college in Ann Arbor, Michigan and his first sale as a screenwriter. While reading The First Time I Got Paid for It, Writers’ Tales from the Hollywood Trenches I found this retelling by Kasden when he would have been a 28 year old advertising copywriter:
“One summer day in 1977 my agent asked to lunch, which was so unusual it made me nervous. It has taken me a long time to get an agent, so naturally, I was worried about hanging on to him. For two years now he had been trying to sell a thriller I had written for my favorite star Steve McQueen, who didn’t know I’d written this thriller for him. Originally, the agent thought he wouldn’t have much trouble selling the script, so he agreed to represent me. But after sixty-seven rejections he was getting discouraged.”
But his agent didn’t want to part ways with Kasden, but he did want Kasden to try his hand at writing for television, specifically Starsky & Hutch. Kasden reluctantly agreed to give it a shot. Soon he heard back from the powers that be at Starsky & Hutch that he didn’t have the goods to write for the show. He told the agent not to give up on him that he had a new screenplay in the works that was almost done. He thought that would buy him a little more time to breakthrough.
Then Kasden writes, “But when I came into my job the next day, there was a message that my agent had called. Could he have changed his mind overnight? Of course he could. After nine years of writing screenplays without success, I believed only bad things were going to happen to me. But what he had to tell me wasn’t bad. It was kind of miraculous. After two years and all that rejection, suddenly two different parties were interested in my thriller—which was called The Bodyguard.”
So while you dream of writing the next Raiders of the Lost Ark or Return of the Jedi (or get discouraged in your own career) remember Kasden’s line, “After nine years of writing screenplays without success.” And also keep in mind that while that first sale came in 1977 it was fifteen years before the film The Bodyguard was produced and released into theaters. (The film starred Kevin Costner and Whitney Houston in roles that were originally thought would star Steve McQueen & Barbra Stresisand. The movie made over $400 million worldwide.)
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