I am excited to introduce you all to Anthony Derrico, a screenwriter who has given me some very insightful guidance and script notes. Anthony has over a decade of industry experience as reader, educator, and screenwriter. Repped by Zero Gravity Management, he is currently developing feature films and television dramas with their production team. He has collaborated on script revisions with acclaimed international directors and has been a writer-for-hire for some of the most successful producers/directors in America.
More details on Anthony can be found using the following links:
Justin Sloan: Anthony, I am glad to share your advice with my readers, as I greatly enjoyed our conversation the other day and personally learned a lot. To get us started, please tell us what made you interested in the world of screenwriting to begin with?
Anthony Derrico: It certainly wasn’t born out of a love for writing. If spellcheck hadn’t been invented, I’d be working on a river barge or selling human kidneys on the black market. It started with a love for movies and an overactive imagination. I was a good storyteller. The technical stuff like cinematography, lighting, editing and such required too much concentration. I studied screenplay formats in high school with what means I could and had my first feature written before my first semester of undergrad was over. It was crap naturally, but the creative energy it generated was addictive.
JS: I have read some of your writing and was very impressed. Would you attribute the quality of your writing to any one thing you did, or is it really just putting in the hours and finding your voice? What have you done to improve your craft?
AD: Hours and voice. I had some luck early on with no real understanding of the craft, just running on raw talent. I would get feedback from great readers at New Line and HBO and then not know what to do with it. My rewrites were actually making scripts worse. College courses weren’t the best. The Ol’ World Wide Web hadn’t realized its potential yet. There were no websites to assist with screenplay catalogues. I was living in New York City at the time and the libraries had some hard-copies of scripts. Other than that, it was just Syd Field.
Out of frustration, I stopped script writing for a while and worked on my prose. I was intent on capturing an American voice. Studied (mimicked) Twain, Steinbeck through the beats to Terry Southern to Hunter S. Thompson. The prose went nowhere, but my voice was formed.
I didn’t return to screenwriting until I had some passionate instructors in grad school. With my voice down, I went back into focusing on the craft of screenwriting. ( I’m still working on it.) More is expected from a script now. Especially in independent films (which is like 80 percent of the movie business these days). Even more so in television. High quality and deeply developed characters are necessary to compete. A good concept is one thing, but you need a great role or roles to attract the actors needed to secure financing.
The greatest strides I’ve made in improving my craft have happened over the last few years when I began collaborating with more experienced directors and producers. People who really understand the art of visual storytelling and how actors respond to characters on the page. This continues to be the highlight of my career so far. What the knowledge and practices of talented people have brought to my own writing has been invaluable.
JS: Can you tell us a bit about some of the projects you have been working on and maybe share the paths one or two of these have followed?
AD: I’ve been involved and am currently involved in a number of projects at various stages of development and/or preproduction. Many roadblocks and misfires along the way that have nothing to do with the screenplay. It’s difficult to keep the ducks in a row from script to producer to financiers to director to actor. It really can take years after a script is market ready, optioned or purchased, to get it to the screen.
A script I write on my own will go out into the market, either for sale or maybe packaged, but generally I’ll work on an idea with the development team at Zero Gravity. These are ideas geared for what the market is looking for at that time. After a couple treatments and 3-5 drafts, it’ll be released for packaging. Usually going to financiers and sales agents. Once potential investors sign on, ZG will go after a director. The director and I will typically do 2-3 more drafts. (It can be more. I wrote dozens of drafts with one director only for it to not work out.) Then it’s ready to go out to actors. In my experience, it takes a couple revisions to mold the characters into the actors’ visions. Once that’s done, you get on your knees and pray it doesn’t all fall apart before principal photography.
JS: Is your story typical in any way? What should aspiring writers expect from the early days of Hollywood, should they start to see small successes?
AD: I wouldn’t say my story’s typical. Nor am I trailblazer by any means. I wouldn’t suggest following my trail unless you have severe masochistic tendencies fueled by self-hatred. There have been a lot of sacrifices. And still are to a degree. Had mine been a typical story it would’ve ended years ago with giving up and doing something much easier and rewarding… Like human organ trafficking.
I’d stress patience with small successes, but if you’re not a patient person then you’ll just have to keep your blood pressure medicine handy like I do. A lot of it’s one step forward, two steps back. After realizing the big success isn’t going to happen overnight, you can start benefitting from where are you are in your career. Each small success is an opportunity to get better. To work harder and understand more deeply. Just as you layer characters in a script, you can use each small step forward to better comprehend all the layers of filmmaking process. Embrace the collaborative process and be an open book.
JS: I understand that you have read for contests and know personally that you give great notes. What are your thoughts on contests for the aspiring writer, and what are some of the main takeaways for the craft that you learned during your time as a reader?
AD: I mistakenly interned in film production rather than development. This was mostly due to the fact that I was living in New Orleans and there were no nearby production companies developing material. That meant starting out reading for contests as a way to script read for companies. There is nothing more damaging to the human psyche than reading bad scripts day after day. Nor will it improve your writing.
I wouldn’t pass up an opportunity to read for a production company even if it’s for free. Especially one that doesn’t accept unsolicited material. You’ll be reading new stuff from top writers or very talented up-and-comers. All of which will improve your skills. Even if it’s through osmosis. My better notes come from working as a coverage writer, not a contest reader.
JS: You have done well in contests, to include winning the Silver Medal in PAGE. Did these successes directly help your career?
AD: Unfortunately, no. I’m not going to bash contests. Certainly won’t bash PAGE. They have a lot of good people there. The nice thing about PAGE is it breaks into genres, so if you do place, companies with specific needs might request your script. When winners were announced that year, I didn’t even know. Hurricane Katrina had just hit and I was in evacuation mode. A few weeks later, I got a half-dozen or so requests. Nothing amounted to much. That’s not PAGE’s fault.
Often contest placing or winning scripts are still not up to the level needed to break into the industry or get a manager. Like I mentioned, you read so many bad scripts that even finding a passable one that held your attention feels like a victory.
With every contest there are some successes, so I’d never advise anyone not to enter.
JS: What are the main contests we should be focused on? Do people in Hollywood pay attention to these contests?
AD: The Nicholl Fellowship. Placing in the Nicholl even just quarterfinals netted me dozens of requests. Mostly from managers, but I had signed with Zero Gravity a month earlier on the merits of new script never entered in contests. In fact, Zero Gravity first to even read the script. It was just my time. Elements in my writing were coming together that made me a worthwhile investment.
Disney I think still has a fellowship, so does Universal. There are a few other networks and studios that have them on occasion. These are all worth submitting. I haven’t kept up with the newer contests.
Most companies willing to read contest winners are the same ones you’ll find at pitch conferences. I’m a pretty good bullshitter, so I’ve had success when I went to a couple of those.
I’d also recommend Austin Film Festival and Screenwriters’ Conference. And don’t mess around, buy the top tier pass. Hit the parties and go easy on the free drinks.
JS: You also did some PA work. Do you recommend that as a starting point for writers? Is it about making the connections, or should a writer really be spending that time writing?
AD: New Orleans was becoming Hollywood South at the time. There’s was a good bit of work and it’s great to be surrounded by passionate professionals. I was trying to use script supervising as a means to break in, but it takes a level of organization and concentration that as a creative writer proved difficult. It wasn’t for me. I stuck with writing and script reading once I moved to Los Angeles.
Yes, you need to be committed to the craft and your writing, but you gotta eat too. Working on a film beats the late shift at Denny’s. Sometimes.
JS: How did you go from those days to being repped? How did you find representation, and what advice can you give to other writers seeking representation?
AD: Zero Gravity accepts queries and had read several of my other scripts. None got picked up. I finally came up with a screenplay that was not only marketable and timely, it had all the principal needs for a story to succeed. High concept, low budget. A genre pic with strong lead characters. Limited locations. And the story was sound. All the elements producers look for… It clicked.
Writers seeking representation need to have more than just a good concept. They need to have a masterful understanding of the craft and be industry savvy. Don’t have elements in the script that give them (reps, producers) a reason to say no. Big budgets, too much CG FXs, too many characters and locations. Don’t be too dark, too soft, or too complicated. Show you can keep it simple, but smart and budget friendly. Above all show you can tell a story through deeply layered characters that actors will want to play. That last bit is easier said than done.
Getting repped is like winning a battle, but not the war. The new challenge is getting scripts onto the screen. Writing professionally obviously carries more weight. The stress level can be and often is worse. You have to step up your game. Be ready to develop the script with a producer. And then, the financier may have notes and conditions as well. Then, the director… You have to mold into his or her vision. Then, the actor… Lead actors will definitely request changes. And while you’re hammering out scenes, you have to hope someone else doesn’t drop the ball… Scatter the ducks… Because then the development process tends to start all over again. This has happened to me repeatedly. Sometimes it’s just bad luck. Sometimes the script’s not just there yet. But you must keep working, because if you weren’t onto something, then none of this would be happening.
JS: I am sure being repped has helped your career, but do you feel it has helped your craft as well? If so, are you able to point to one area the notes and whatnot has helped your writing?
AD: It has undoubtedly helped my craft. I have mentioned before about working in a professional environment. A few writers I know didn’t have such good experiences with management companies. One wouldn’t help them develop something marketable, just waited until the writers came up with something on their own. Others had too many clients or films in production to spend time with new writers. Some reps didn’t even return calls. I am very fortunate that ZG really invests in their clients, but you have put the time in on your craft as well. You have to be willing go with what the market needs. Be industry savvy.
Conflicting notes from different people never helps. The worst mistake I made was biting off more than I can chew. There was a point recently where I just got a contract as writer-for-hire days after a director signed on to another script. Days after that we got an actor for another one of my scripts. I was juggling two rewrites and a whole new script with demanding people. I managed, but not as well as I had hoped.
JS: Your writing tends to stick to a genre. Is this on purpose? Do you follow the advice that we should brand ourselves in such a way?
AD: Some writers have a negative perception of being branded, being boxed in, but early in your career especially in the entertainment industry you need to be as marketable as possible. Mastering a genre gives you an edge. Your reps can target you for assignments. You’re competing with seasoned writers who have all mastered a genre.
I’m the edgy thriller guy right now. I started writing horrors and sci-fis. I enjoyed creating my own worlds and rules; pushing the limits of my imagination. But I was picked up on merits as an effective thriller writer. So I was planted in that garden where I have been nurtured, allowed to bloom, and occasionally clipped. The nice thing about thrillers is you can branch out easily with sub-genre elements… Horror thrillers, sci-fi thrillers, psychological thrillers and so on.
JS: Thank you again, Anthony. Before signing off, do you have one last bit of advice that you want to leave us with? Something new or maybe a summary of the points above?
AD: Just what I tell myself all day long… “Shut up and write.”
If you enjoyed this interview, you may enjoy more included in my book Creative Writing Career, on Amazon.