In December 2013, Matthew Hickman won the inaugural Black List/Cassian Elwes Independent Screenwriting Fellowship. You can read the Hollywood Reporter article about it here. Matthew wrote up a series of dispatches about his experiences in winning the fellowship and his subsequent trip with Elwes to the 2014 Sundance Film Festival.
I reached out to Matthew for an update and he was kind enough to do just that:
It’s terrifying how quickly a year can pass–especially the good ones. Last September I submitted a script that I’d been working on for several months to The Black List. I still remember (and always will, I suspect) waking up on Friday the 13th and reaching for my phone before my eyes were fully open. I’d gotten into the habit of checking my e-mail obsessively sometime that week–ever watchful for the results of my paid read.
I remember seeing that startling and sanity-testing e-mail from The Black List–the one that alerts you to a new rating of your script, but doesn’t bother revealing the damned numbers. Thankfully I didn’t experience a repeat of reading my first Black List evaluation that morning. Nobody forgets their first time, and mine was spent hidden in the bathroom of The UPS Store where I work for five minutes, trying to summon enough bars of signal on my cell phone to log into the website and read my score, only to walk out feeling gut-punched several minutes later. I’m sure my co-workers wondered if I was sick whenever they saw the look on my face that day. They would have been right, in a way.
On this morning, however, cell phone reception was on my side. So were the numbers; I got a 9/10, which in that moment seemed better and more tangible than perfection itself. I was elated. I shook my girlfriend awake to share the news with her. I did a jig in our living room. Going to work was a breeze that day. That night Alexis and I drove to Nevada and spent money we didn’t have drinking cheap champagne on Las Vegas boulevard. Even when it’s just a few little digits, validation can do incredible things for a writer’s sense of purpose. For a few brief moments, the nagging questions of your true, deserved place in the world recede into the horizon–you did pick the right path, you are not a fool after all, and your destiny is assured, beckoning you like the lights of Sin City at the end of a long drive through the desert.
These Swedish kids we met at the pool sure are swell. You also like The Tallest Man On Earth? Why yes, we’d love to accompany you to an overpriced club this evening. What’s that? You can get us in for free?
The velvet ropes of the world seemed to literally part that weekend.
It was impossible to know at the time that my airy sentiments then were anything more than delusions–the kind of stuff writers tell themselves when they get small bits of encouragement just to make it through another day of battling the blank page. But if this were Syd Field, all this would be the “inciting incident” of my story. So much happened as a direct result of that seemingly trivial decision I made to take just one more crack at The Black List with my newest script:
-Several weeks later I entered Cassian’s Fellowship.
-On my birthday I found out I was a finalist.
-On yet another occasion of Friday the 13th (this time in December) he called to tell me I’d won.
I swear I’m not into numerology, but I must admit that 13 has been my favorite number since childhood. Check my little league pictures for proof. All of these events I talked about (probably at too much length), in some of my previous entries. Whenever Scott asked me to write a follow-up about what my life has been like since then, I jumped at the opportunity.
To be completely honest, the idea of what came after Sundance always excited me as much as the actual trip itself. Don’t misunderstand me–I love everything about the festival, and if I have anything to say about the matter, I’ll attend it every year for the rest of my life. There’s something exhilarating about decamping with half of Hollywood to a remote mountain town for a glorified slumber party where the movies never stop playing. Stars are born–and re-born–in that rare air, and if you can’t draw inspiration from that, check your pulse.
I knew Sundance was where I would learn what I needed to know to get started as a writer in this town. As exciting as that was, though, I knew that everything after that trip would be when I did the work of actually starting to build my career. It also doesn’t hurt that Cassian’s endorsement carries weight–it’s a bulletproof reference on the bottom of your resume. I firmly believed that one way or another I’d be on my way toward a career as a screenwriter whenever I left Park City.
The seasons since then have not disappointed, though they have certainly flown by. Although there are some things better left unannounced at this point, here are a few of the things that have taken place in my life since Sundance:
In February I got an e-mail from Noah Rosen at Circle of Confusion about my script. Whenever I met with he and Elana Barry at their offices in Culver City, he capped off a strong case to be my manager by concluding with: “normally this is the part where I tell you that you should go meet with other people and see what fits best–but I don’t want you to meet other people. I want to be your people.” By the end of the weekend, I’d signed with their company.
I started going on meetings at studios and their subsidiaries, getting acquainted with the lots at Fox and Paramount, and wondering who I might see walk by. I’ve formed relationships with the kinds of people who can actually hire me to write scripts, and began to hone my skills on pitching takes in a room. It turns out that in order to be successful as a writer, how you are in a room with people is just as (or perhaps more) important than the words you put on the page. My advice to anyone about to embark on this process is simply to treat them like anyone else–most of the executives that I’ve met with are friendly enough people, they just work extremely hard and are in a position to make or break your career as a writer. Don’t sweat it too much.
Also: I’ve been hired to write a script! Back in December, shortly after I’d first been awarded the Fellowship, Cassian invited me to dinner at a restaurant in Beverly Hills. That night he introduced me to Veronica Ferres, a German actress, and several members of her production company who were interested in helping us bring my script to life. We immediately hit it off, and although I was happy to spend the evening in good company surrounded by people who were saying nice things about my writing, I never suspected that it might be a kind of informal job interview.
Although I doubt anyone at the time viewed it that way, just that kind of opportunity arose when Cassian called me a few months later and told me that they were interested in hiring me to write something that would be a starring vehicle for Veronica. After some preliminary discussions with their creative executives about the subject matter and storyline, I knew it was a great fit, and I’ve been hard at work on a story for them ever since. Although I’d love to share more details about the nature of the story, it isn’t my news alone to share, so I’ll simply say that I look forward to seeing how things develop once I turn in the final polish in a month or so.
That brings me to what might be the nicest part of this all: respect. When you’re an aspiring writer, you claim to have a skill that most people doubt (probably rightfully) you actually possess to the degree necessary for success in Hollywood. You struggle against that doubt for a long time. I have to say that nowadays, I get that vibe from others less than ever. I doubt it will ever go away entirely (perhaps part of it is imagined, something to keep the fire lit within–Michael Jordan was famous for using slights, real or imagined, as motivation to go out and drop fifty on his opponents), but after winning Cassian’s fellowship, whenever I am having discussions with creative executives at Veronica’s company, or I’m building out a pitch with someone after a good general meeting, it feels like they treat me as colleagues–not just some starry-eyed kid with super-sized dreams (although I probably still am very much that). That in itself has been an enormous reward.
I couldn’t let this post end without an update about the script that started this all. Cassian has spoken with several directors about taking the lead on my script, and he made the offer to someone who I know will do an excellent job within the last few months. Right now he’s putting together a budget for the movie, and after that we’ll go out and recruit talent. There are days and moments when I’m tempted to be impatient–when a customer at work yells at me about the broken glass on framed artwork she herself packed and shipped, or at the end of another long day when I come home from one job to finish writing an outline I promised myself I’d have done yesterday. It feels as if I’m at the end of a marathon, and now that the finish line is finally within view, those last few moments of running seem to stretch out into eternity.
Of course this is all an exaggeration, but that is how it feels in certain moments. The reality is, making movies takes a very long time, and by any historical comparison we’re doing just fine. A few of my favorite films help me remember this reality. Little Miss Sunshine was written in 2000. It premiered at Sundance in 2006. Good Will Hunting was the same story. As Damon and Affleck revealed in this highly entertaining interview, “[It was] four years before it got made. I remember just feeling like the film moved at such a glacial pace.” It’s funny to imagine Matt Damon, upstart young actor and would-be screenwriter, sending Harvey Weinstein passive-aggressive faxes in order to motivate him to push the project forward. Bearing these stories in mind, I constantly remind myself that I’m in good company, and if our movie is 1/10th as good as either of those two, I’ll be thrilled.
Regardless of what course things take from here, my life and career have taken giant strides forward in the last eight months. On a macro level, there’s a very good chance that a movie with my name on it will be released within the next two years. I have representation. I’m getting paid to write. But it’s not just the big things that I take satisfaction in. Clichés are repeated for a reason, and since winning Cassian’s fellowship I’ve felt the intimate truth of these words; “it’s the little things in life that mean the most.” Just a few examples before I go–
I signed up for my first two credit cards in exchange for a couple of Jimmy John’s sandwiches when I was a freshman in college. I’ve had credit card debt ever since–until I paid it all off six months ago. I can afford to fly home more than once a year now. During those trips I’ve helped my mother remodel her master bathroom, so that she can finally use the shower inside it–a first in her twenty-four years there. I replace broken locks and knobs that she doesn’t really have the money or time to bother with when she isn’t looking. I take enormous pride in those small measures of progress; they are the nuts and bolts of a reality that is slowly but surely beginning to hew more closely to the grand fantasies I’ve always harbored about what life was destined to be for my family. Even on the long days at The UPS Store–and they do still exist–it is easy for me to see that I’ve got everything to be happy about. Cassian and The Black List have had everything to do with it.
This is a stellar example of why I’m proud to be partnered with the Black List and even prouder to call Franklin Leonard a professional associate and friend. The odds against a writer breaking into Hollywood are enormous, especially for those who have little in the way of connections in the business. Yet there are talented writers outside the system, creatives with unique voices who can bring something special to the world of movies and TV. What the Black List is doing through the many initiatives it has launched in the last few years in conjunction with The Black Board and Go Into The Story is provide aspiring and professional writers a community of online resources to support their growth in the craft and create new opportunities to advance their careers. Just like what happened to Matthew Hickman.
To read all of Matthew’s dispatches, go here.