“It’s good not to follow the herd. Go the other way.”
What do screenwriter Diablo Cody and golfer Tiger Woods have in common? I know it sounds like a setup for a bad joke, but the word I’m looking for is anomaly. They’re both anomalies.
When Woods won the 1997 Master’s Tournament by the greatest margin ever is was apparent to all that there was a new domanant force on the PGA tour that the world had never seen before.
From 1999 to 2010, except for a few months, Woods was was the top ranked golfer in the world. Because of his African-American heritage it was often predicated that he world inspire a wave of black golfers that would follow in his footsteps.
That didn’t happen.
Almost 20 years after his Master’s win there not only hasn’t been a wave, there hasn’t even been a trickle that’s followed in his footsteps professionally. In fact, it wasn’t until 2010 when Joseph Bramlet became “first player of African-American descent to make the PGA Tour since Tiger Woods.” (In his time on the PGA tour he’s had no top ten finishes, making it doubtful he’s the next Tiger Woods.)
Tiger Woods was an anomaly.
And in the world of Hollywood screenwriters, Diablo Cody is an anomaly. Her rise from graduating from the University of Iowa, to Minneapolis blogger, to Oscar-winning screenwriter before she turning 30 was remarkable.
I made that Wood-Cody connection recently after I did an interview with screenwriter Greg DePaul (Bride Wars) who, along with still writing, is now teaching at NYU. (Starting tomorrow I’ll begin running posts of the interview with DePaul over the next week or so.) DePaul is clear that his goal is to teach screenwriters only (not director/writers or filmmakers) what it takes to be a Hollywood screenwriter. He told me “you don’t teach the exception” and that makes sense at NYU, UCLA, USC, and AFI—because those routes are a tried and true path. (But, of course, there are no guarantees there.)
But my blog is titled Screenwriting from Iowa…and Other Unlikely Places, so do I seek to inspire the anomalies?—Absolutely. And that almost always means wearing at least two or three hats: producer/director/writer/actor/cameraman/editor/filmmaker.
The odds are against you any way you cut it, but if you’re going to be anomaly—embrace it. Be a purple cow, as Seth Godin calls it. Find a way to stand out.
Just yesterday I read about two young guys who started making films as kids in Durham, North Carolina and eventually graduated from Chapman College just five years ago. A film they made after graduating got the attention of M. Night Shyamalan which eventually led them to an opportunity for Matt and Ross to write and direct Stranger Things for Netflix, using their professional name The Duffer Brothers.
The real life brothers are anomalies. I spent nine years writing blog post pulling quotes from some of the best screenwriters and filmmakers in U.S. & European history, but I’ve also written a good deal about the exceptions—the anomalies. I love anomalies.
But on the other hand, Tiger Woods, Diablo Cody, and the Brothers Duffer really aren’t anomalies. Woods’ father introduced his son at an early age to golf and coached him and brought him up playing on golf courses, just like many a champion golfer. Cody said she wrote every day (poems, shorts stories) from the age of 12 on and majored in media studies so she had around 15 years of writing when Mason Novak discovered the then Minneapolis blogger online, and The Duffer Brothers were encouraged by their parents to make films at a young age and went to school in Southern California which put them in close proximity to Shyamalan.
We can argue over the technicalities of what makes someone an anomaly, but here are a few people—some anomalies— that come to mind who’ve found a way to get a film or two made taking a less than traditional route:
Filmmaker Tyler Perry in Atlanta
‘Super-Serving Your Niche’
Filmmaker Robert Rodriguez in Austin
Freedom of Limitations
Filmmaker Jeff Nichols (Mud) went to college in North Carolina, wrote his first script at home in Arkansas, and moved to Austin to make his first film (Shotgun Stories). Peter Travers wrote in Rolling Stone magazine earlier this year that Nicholas “already ranks with the best American directors of his generation.”
Screenwriter Mike Rich (Finding Forrester) in Portland
Mike Rich & Hobby Screenwriting. While screenwriters like Cody often move to L.A. after their initial success I don’t believe Rich ever has. He also wrote The Rookie, The Nativity Story, and Secretariat.
Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns in Haydenville, Massachusetts
Ken Burns on 1+1=3
Filmmaker Joe Swanberg in Chicago
Shooting a FIlm in 4 Days
Screenwriter Rick Ramage (Stigmata) in Denver
Screenwriting Quote #197 (Rick Ramage)
And while it’s hard to argue with Greg DePaul that if you want to be a Hollywood screenwriter you have to live in L.A. That’s where you’ll find the studios, connections, and assignments.
But that doesn’t mean you can’t be like screenwriter Nick Schenk who wrote Gran Tornio in a bar in Minneapolis.
Screenwriting Quote of the Day #10 (Nick Schenk)
While Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan eventually moved to L.A. (and graduated from NYU) he got his break back in his home state of Virginia when he won the Virginia Governor’s Screenwriting Competition. One of the judges was Oscar-winning producer Mark Johnson (Rain Man), who introduced Gilligan to The X-Files creator Chris Carter, who offered Gilligan a freelance opportunity to write for the The X-Files and eventually hired him as a full-time writer on the show.
Check out the article in MovieMaker online by Steve Balderson who’s made 16 feature films based in Wamego, Kansas. And the following documentary on making movies anywhere:
9/14/16 Update: In the way that these kinds of things line up sometimes, the day after I wrote this post John August and Craig Mazin spent the first 20 minutes of the Scriptnotes 267 podcast talking about launching and/or maintaining a film or Tv writing from outside Los Angeles. They played back phone messages or read emails of various writers including Chris Sparling (Buried) who now lives in Rhode Island. Check out the podcast for to further your understanding of what it means to start or maintain a dramatic writing career outside of L.A. What I Greg DePaul calls an exception, and I call an anomaly, Mazin called an outlier. Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers: The Story of Success touches on why the outliers sometimes comes at things from a fresh new perspective that the insiders don’t see..
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