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Famous Screenwriters On Their Big Breaks

Every writer in Hollywood has a different success story.  Some were lawyers, bartenders, or video store clerks who loved movies and wrote on the weekends.  Some were actors who decided they could write better than most of the material they read. A few of them had mentors to guide them. Others had to figure it out all by themselves.

I gathered some stories about famous writer’s paths to success, and found some quotes that might be helpful. There is something about hearing them discus their success stories,  in their own words, that is both compelling and inspiring.

“I couldn’t afford screenwriting classes but I was able to get a library card at the American Film Institute, which was great because I got to read scripts that way. Those were so awful that it puffed up my ego and made me think I could do better than this. I was in L.A. for almost a year before I found an idea that was commercial enough. I wrote it with a friend – he was very funny and I was very funny, and we thought we could make each other funnier. And we sold it. It was a huge deal; people weren’t making million-dollar deals then. But we were off and running.”

– Leslie Dixon.  Dixon wrote Pay it Forward, The Thomas Crown Affair, Mrs. Doubtfire, and Limitless.

 “We took a screenwriting class (at college) together and realized that we liked the same type of films. A few years later Michael moved to Hollywood and worked as a film editor. We started writing a script together and when we finished, Michael gave it to his post-production supervisor on a film he was working on. She gave it to a producer’s assistant, who gave it to a producer, who gave it to Brad Pitt’s manager, who gave it to Brad Pitt. He said he wanted to star in it and it sold. So… the secret to making it in Hollywood is to have Brad Pitt say he wants to star in your spec script.”

– Derek Haas & Michael Brandt, collaborated on 2 Fast 2 Furious, Wanted, and 3:10 to Yuma.

“When a spec script makes the rounds, you’re hoping it’s going to sell for a million dollars but you’re not surprised when all the studios come back and say they’re not interested, which was the case with Seven. It went to a second bunch of studios and production companies, and they all passed, too. Eventually Jeremiah Chechik was interested enough that an Italian company, Penta Films, optioned the script for him.”

– Andrew Kevin Walker.  Walker wrote the screenplays for Se7en, Sleepy Hollow, and 8mm.

“I went to a screenwriter’s forum online, where there was a professional screenwriter who had also broken in with a spec and who was really cool about answering people’s questions. This was Terry Rossio. He asked to read my script, which he liked, and because he and his writing partner, Ted Elliott, were also producers, he asked if there were any other projects I was interested in. There was a children’s Christmas book I’d found years earlier that I’d always thought would make a great idea for a comedy. Terry agreed, and we ended up pursuing the rights and pitching it to studio executives. Tristar said yes, and that’s how I broke in.”

– Bill Marsilii.  Marsilii lists among his credits,  The Wind in the Willows, and Déjà vu.

“I wanted to be a writer and started writing novels. I also wrote plays, but I couldn’t get any support from the playwriting world. I felt I got more respect out of the publishing world so I put all my energy into doing that, but it wasn’t an accident that after hitting my limit as a novelist, I drove to Hollywood when I was thirty-five to become a screenwriter. Directing theatre in college made me want to write the stories myself. I gave myself five years and worked really hard, writing fourteen specs before I got hired for Colors.”

– Michael Schiffer.  Schiffer has written the scripts for  Crimson Tide, Lean on Me, Colors, and The Peacemaker.

“I kept going back to that same company, which was Talent Associates, and barraging them with material. Finally they started giving me things to do, but they didn’t pay me. I figured if I did enough things for free, eventually they would be so embarrassed by their situation that they would give me a job, which they did. They broke down and paid me $1,500 to write a script for a live television show, and I was in the business.”

– Larry Cohen.   Cohen is the writer of  Phone Booth, and Cellular.

“I submitted to the Samuel Goldwyn Writing Awards and to the brand new contest that year [1986] the Nicholl Fellowship. I won both. The Goldwyn had been around a long time, so there were journalists and agents waiting around to hear who’d won. The Nicholl Fellowship was new, so there wasn’t so much attention around that, but it was quite a juicy prize. At that time it was $20,000. Everybody wanted to read my script.”

– Allison Anders, Anders lists among her credits, Things Behind the Sun, Gas Food Lodging, and Mi Vida Loca.

“I got up at three, wrote until six, the kids got up, I spent time with them until seven, and then got to work by eight and was a good lawyer until six, had dinner with my wife, and played with the kids. All weekend long I’m writing, and on vacations I’m writing like crazy. I wrote four scripts in a year and a half while I was practicing law. And then a good friend who happened to be head of Fox at the time said to me, “How many blind deals would you need from me to be able to quit law entirely and just write?” I thought about it, did the calculations, and it came down to two scripts. He said, “You got it.”

— Ron Bass.  Bass has written the screenplays for Sleeping with the Enemy, Rain Man, and My Best Friend’s Wedding.

Besides hard work and years of writing, it appears every successful screenwriter depended on somebody to make a difference in their career, somebody who believed in them, who may have had a foothold in the industry.  They might have been a friend, a co-worker, someone they met in a writing class, or a stranger who read their script. 

Whatever the case, that person read their material and was moved.  Success doesn’t happen in a vacuum.  You will depend on others to get your break.   

If you’re having trouble finishing a draft,  or a re-write, feel free to talk with me, a produced screenwriter,  at 310-850-4707.

Image credit: Creative Commons,  sale,  2007, by Anthony Easton, is licensed under CC By 2.



Famous Screenwriters On Their Big Breaks

David Silverman, MA, LMFT

A lot of careers can really knock you around. The compettiion is fierce, in graphic design, architecture, you name it -- especially in creative careers in Hollywood. Writers and performers get slammed with rejection constantly. If you're going through something -- anxiety, addiction or depression -- I help people like you get through it. And thrive. Let me help you get your dream back on track.

Please check out my website: My story: my brother grew up with a severe case of OCD, and while I just a kid --- in family therapy with him, I witnessed a miracle as he was transformed, and now is enjoying the life he deserves. I went to Stanford University to study Psychology, and USC Film. I've worked in FIlm/TV and experienced high levels of anxiety, and got slammed with rejection myself. I learned how to get through it. Today, I love to help people to regain the lifestyle they deserve.

David Silverman Psychotherapy

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APA Reference
Silverman, D. (2017). Famous Screenwriters On Their Big Breaks. Psych Central. Retrieved on January 18, 2020, from


Last updated: 1 Dec 2017
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