I've often been told how it's almost impossible for screenwriters outside of Hollywood to get the major agencies interested. So I thought I'd chat with Joe Nienalt - a guy who not only signed up with UTA - he's also picked up a six-figure deal to write a movie to be filmed in Russian. And no - he doesn't speak a word of the language!
And despite what the naysayers would claim - he achieved all this from Tacoma .. which might as well be Dubbo as far as Hollywood is concerned. So how did he achieve all of this? I figured I should talk to him to find out.
Q: So how did you get started in screenwriting?
I got interested in creative writing in my late teens. I was very into writing poetry and song lyrics back then. I think I fancied myself the next Eddie Vedder or something. I remember daydreaming about moving to Seattle and joining a band. It’s funny that I eventually wound up in the Seattle area, anyway. So poetry was kind of my first love when it comes to writing and I still consider poetry to be the purest expression of true creative writing.
My interest in poetry eventually led me to fiction writing. I took a stab at a novel and let a friend read it. He was an aspiring screenwriter and thought the dialogue in the novel was solid so he suggested I try my hand at screenwriting. That was in 2005. I’ve been hooked ever since. All aspects of the screenwriting world interest me. You not only have to be an immensely talented writer but you must be savvy when it comes to marketing and business as well. It’s a truly complex mountain to climb.
Q: How did you improve as a writer - you've obviously moved up several levels to get such interest ?
I think I turned the corner when I started injecting more and more pieces of my life into my work. An aspiring screenwriter will always ask themselves questions like, “will an agent think this idea is commercial enough?” or “will it sell?” I’m not going to sit here and say aspiring scribes shouldn’t ask those questions but I feel like my writing improved and I made my biggest creative breakthroughs when I stopped fixating on the business oriented questions so much and started looking within myself. I took a good hard look at my life…my past…my present…what I wanted my future to be like and I wrote a script called THE RIGHTEOUS & THE WICKED. That script has been the door opener for me so far.
Q: What attracted the agency representation? And how did you get the chance for them to see it in the first place?
THE RIGHTEOUS & THE WICKED is what got United Talent Agency (UTA) onboard. Jon Huddle (my agent) was on the advisory board for a writing fellowship I won back in 2005. I kept tabs on all of the agents on the board and kept track of their email addresses and things like that. When I wrote RIGHTEOUS I knew it was time to play those cards. I emailed Jon reminding him of our shared affiliation with the writing fellowship program. He told me to send him my best work. I sent him RIGHTEOUS and he loved it. He asked if he could show it to a senior agent at UTA named Jason Burns. Jason loved it, too. They became my agenting team with Jon as my point agent. Later we brought Jon’s former William Morris mentor Alan Gasmer onboard to manage me. Essentially it was effective networking that put me in a position to be represented by the same agency as some of my writing heroes like the Coen Brothers, Charlie Kaufman, and Alan Ball.
I think that most aspiring writers are way too cautious when it comes to networking. They’re worried about things like proper protocol and being annoying and things like that. Look, you’re trying to climb the mountain, right? Who cares if you annoy a couple people along the way as long as you reach the top. I can’t tell you how many agents, managers, directors, and producers who I’ve contacted and have them flat out refuse to read my work. You just move on and email the next one. You have to be relentless. You have to work as hard at the marketing and networking as you do at the actual writing. If you do, eventually you’ll punch through.
Q: But how does someone who doesn't speak Russian get paid to write a Russian screenplay ?
The Russian job essentially resulted from more effective networking from the group of people my agents exposed the script to that essentially became my fan base in the industry. Nick Wechsler (REQUIEM FOR A DREAM, NORTH COUNTRY, THE ROAD) was one of the producers they gave the script to via his producing collaborator David Gerson. David championed the script and eventually attached British director Alex Holmes (HBO’s HOUSE OF SADDAM).
I was exposed to the work of another director, an Eastern European guy, who was in the running and became a fan of his work. I sought him out on Facebook and we kept in touch that way. He eventually read all my scripts and became a real fan. When he was given the opportunity to pick a writer that he felt had a unique voice to adapt a crime novel written by a former KGB agent, he contacted me. My representatives stepped in and closed the deal.
It’s important to understand that there really are no “big breaks.” If there are, I haven’t had mine yet. I still work a day job. I have a family…kids and a soon to be ex-wife to support. When you see “six figure” deal you have to realize that there are different steps involved in the deal. You get paid to start in on the script and if they like your work you may get paid to rewrite and if they like the way you work you may get paid to revise or polish and all of that totaled up may come up to six figures but it takes a lot of hard work and elbow grease to get there. Since I’m not in the Writer’s Guild yet I have to think outside the box as far as how to bring in money for my writing.
The Russian job was basically a result of that thinking, a lot of hard work by my reps, and two great champions in David Gerson and this Eastern European director.
Q: What advice would you give for screenwriters in Australia ?
The same advice I would give screenwriters anywhere. Believe in yourself and never stop…never give up. If you really commit to never giving up then you can never fail. You’ll always either be trying or succeeding. Either way it’s a win at the end of the day.
This post was originally published on October 13, 2010