“I started writing ever since I could pick up a pencil, but I had been orientated to novels and short stories because that’s what we studied in school. I really didn’t know movies were written until I was probably about 20-years-old.
Screenwriter Robin Swicord
Chances are good that even if you live in a small town in North America you have quite a bit of access to learning about the screenwriting and filmmaking processes. But if you were in a small town in the United States back in the 1970s—and even if you attended a college like Florida State University in Tallahassee—you didn’t have access to cable TV, DVDs with writer and director commentaries, movies streamed online, screenwriting blogs, or even that many books on the screenwriting/filmmaking process. (Syd Field’s classic book on screenwriting didn’t even come put until 1979.)
Yet that’s where Oscar-nominated screenwriter Robin Swicord (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) came from on her way to writing Little Women and Memoirs of a Geisha. She worked as a photographer to pay her way through college and then started to think she could write screenplays.
“I was intimidated. I didn’t have a teacher and I didn’t know how to get started. And it was that thing of being in a small town and knowing that there’s a big world out there, and not knowing quite how to get out of that small town and go to the big world knowing that I wanted to write for film but I’d never met a filmmaker. So there was a period of self invention were I was trying to figure stuff out. Then there weren’t things that are so available now; all the books on structure, interview series like this where you hear writers talking about their work—just being able to go in an rent a DVD and study one filmmaker’s work.”
The Dialogue interview with Jay Fernandez (Part 1)
But the road to Hollywood began for Swicord in Northwest Florida where her photography skills led to some corporate production work in Atlanta for IBM, which led to IBM asking their ad agency in New York if they’d hire Swicord as a copywriter and they did. That got her to New York City where she began to met people in the film business. She was told the best chance a female has to work in the film industry was to be a script supervisor, but her goal was screenwriting.
“I got in touch with some people who had gone to Florida State a little bit after me who were in New York City and hoping to start a theater. And I said, ‘I’ll write a play for you.’ I wrote this play called Last Days at the Dixie Girl Cafe, and we had like $500 between us and we rented the theater and we put an ad in Backstage magazine. And actors showed up and auditioned and then we were in business….I was lucky in that the director of that is a good dramaturge—her name was Lynn Thomson*. She was teaching directing at playwriting at Hunter College and she taught me a lot about writing plays. And a lot of it gets taught to you by actors in the rehearsal process.
“It had a nice opening and moved to off-Broadway and investors found it and so forth and through that an agent saw it and got in touch with me and said, ‘Did you ever consider writing for film?’ And I gave her my first screenplay Stock Cars for Christ.
“I was completely mid-twenties just trying to figure out my own path to get there. I sold a screenplay and stepped into the most remarkable situation that I call ‘learn while you earn.’ I was paid by MGM to rewrite my screenplay endlessly under the tutelage of a wonderful development executive who patiently let me find my way to decent structure. It was an uncommon experience for a beginning screenwriter and I know how lucky I was.”
Swicord is a great example of embracing your limitations and just starting somewhere. Her photography skills were good enough to get her a job that helped pay her way through school where she was an English and Drama major—but also had access to watching films while waiting for her film to develop back in the darkroom. Those skills led to doing corporate films for IMB in Atlanta and that led her to New York City where she connected with people from her college who were starting a theater. She wrote a play for them that got her expose to learning from the director and the actors. The play got noticed, got her an agent, which led to her selling a screenplay and launching her career.
*Lynn M. Thomson went on to work as a dramaturge on Rent (Broadway), and she’s currently the Professor of Dramaturgy and American Theater at Brooklyn College.
P.S. “An agent read the play [Last Days at the Dixie Girl Cafe] and asked me if I would like to write for film. I gave her my first screenplay, Stock Cars For Christ, and she sold it to MGM. MGM sent me a plane ticket and moved me into the Del Capri Hotel in L.A. and rented me a pink typewriter so I could rewrite the screenplay (a total of nine drafts!)—which of course was never made into a film.” Robin Swicord, From Book to Screen Interview