Film Courage: How did you get a screenwriting agent right after college was it?
Todd Berger, filmmaker and co-writer of THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS: I went to school at the University of Texas and they used to do this thing called The Hollywood Showcase where they would take an hour’s worth of student films and they would show it out here in LA at the DGA (Director’s Guild of America) and the would invite alumni (alumni?) of the university just to come and see the short films, just like What are the kids doing back at school?
And so the year I graduated I had written a short film that played and I had written and directed one (so I had two) a puppet short that became the inspiration for THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS.
So you know I was living in Austin. I was delivering pizza. I was going to move to Chicago and do Second City and go to New York because I grew up thinking LA? Hollywood? Sell out? What am I going to sell out?
And so they picked two of my short films for this thing and I graduated like on Saturday and a couple of days later I came to LA just to go the screening, just because I’d never been to LA before and I just graduated and I was like I’ll go to the Hollywood Walk of Fame. I’ll go to the beach.
And so I went to the screening and there is an agent at the screening who just happened to go to my college and he was just there to see the shorts and he liked my short film so much.
And he walked up to me after the reception afterwards and said I loved your short film. Have you written any features before because I’m a literary agent and I represent writers?
And I said Well, I wrote one for class. I took a screenwriting class.
And he’s like Well, send it to me, I’d love to read it.
So I got his card and I went back to Austin and I mailed it to him. This was back in the day when people mailed things. And I just kept delivering pizza and saving up money to move to Chicago and a couple months later he called me and was like Hey, we love your script. We read it and we want to sign you and represent you as a writer. But you have to move to Los Angeles. You can’t move to Chicago because we wouldn’t be able to send you to meetings.
“You have to be prepared for if someone sees your short film and likes it and then they say What else do you have? Do you have any features? Do you have something? You have to be able to say Yes…”
And I was like Ok! Because I was out delivering pizza and I went back and I’m like I’m out! I’m moving to Hollywood.
And just from these short films that I’d done, I’d gotten someone’s attention. And I know the story is ridiculous and I was plucked from obscurity but also part of the story is I had these short films that somebody saw and he came to me and said what else do you have and I was able to say Well, I have this script that I wrote to him and he read it and he liked it.
And so I have a lot of friends who make short films as a calling card, which is an amazing thing to get people’s attention. And I always tell them Well, you have to be prepared for if someone sees your short film and likes it and then they say What else do you have? Do you have any features? Do you have something? You have to be able to say Yes, now here is the other thing. Because I have a lot of friends who have this short that they work very hard on and they’ll go play a festival and they’ll meet an agent or a producer and the agent will say “What else do you have?” And they’ll say Well…I’ve got some ideas of stuff I want to try and start working on…but…uh…nothing right now. Like you can’t do that. You have to have something ready to go, that’s my piece of advice.
Film Courage: And…going back to when you were delivering pizzas did you actually get the call when you were on a run?
Todd: This is actually a really funny story…so I graduated, I was living in Austin. I was moving out of my apartment because I was going to spend 6 months living with a friend of mine in her spare bedroom saving up money into the summer…I graduated in May when you graduate and then I was going to move in January so I had like 7 months where I was just going to deliver pizza and make money. And so I had to move out of my apartment, so I moved everything out of my apartment…except…my answering machine. The only thing that was still in my apartment (I don’t even think I had a cell phone yet. This is 2001). So I had an answering machine and when I gave that agent a business card (By the way, he’s still my agent. He’s still my agent to this day) here we are 16 years later. When I gave him my card in Los Angeles the only number that was on it was my apartment in Austin because I didn’t have a cell phone. The only way he had of contacting me was at my apartment and I was like Well I guess he never got my script or didn’t read my script so the only thing left in my apartment was my answering machine. So I went and moved everything over to the new place and I had to go back and clean and take the answering machine away.
So I go back to clean and there is a red light blinking on the answering machine and I was like Oh, I have a message? And BEEP…Hey, Todd, Steven from the Agency. We read your script. Give me a call. Had I gotten to my apartment like an hour earlier and unplugged the machine, I’d just never have gotten the call from him. Who knows if he would have tried to track me down by some other means. But that message was waiting for me. And the only thing left for me in that apartment was my answering machine so I’m knocking on wood because I’m really lucky.
But I then got a cell phone and I stayed in Austin for like three months delivering pizzas because I still needed to save up money to move to LA because just because I had an agent didn’t mean I was rich or anything, I still needed to afford to move to LA. So I was delivering pizzas and saving up money. I bought a cell phone and I gave my agent my new cell phone number and he took my script that I wrote for class and he gave me some notes on it and I did a new draft and then he sent it around town as a spec script and he showed it to a bunch of producers. And like I didn’t know what that meant and like I’m out on a delivery in Austin and my phone rings and it’s my Hollywood agent and he’s like Todd, hey! We went out with your script and we just set it up at Paramount (it was Kelsey Grammer’s company at Paramount) and I was like Oh? Oh, cool. I don’t know what that means? What does that mean? And he’s like Well, it’s ten thousand dollar option plus you’re going to get a Writer’s Guild minimum of $27,000 to do the guaranteed rewrite. And I’m like I’m sorry, what? What? And he’s like Yeah, so it’s a guaranteed $37,000 dollars.
And I was like That’s more money than I’ve heard of or imagined. Because I’m making like $7.00 an hour at this pizza place. So it was like a dream, I couldn’t believe it. And I went back to the pizza place where I worked and I was like I’m out! I quit! I’m Hollywood now. But then I’m a nice guy so I actually finished my shift.
Film Courage: Good. That’s admirable.
Todd: I think I actually finished working one more shift and but then I quit and moved to LA. But…that being said…I did learn the harsh realities of…I then…it’s not like everything I wrote got sold or I got jobs that easy. It’s like I thought that’s how it worked because my first script right out the gate got optioned. So I was like Oh, every script I ever write now is going to get optioned and set up but no it took awhile for it to happen again. I hit lightning in a bottle the first time. And I moved out to LA thinking I’m a wunderkind. I’m an awesome, hotshot 22-year-old.
Film Courage: How soon after?
Todd: Oh, pretty soon. Pretty soon, like I wrote another script. You know I moved out and I wrote another script and I’m like Cool, let’s show this one. I’m sure I’m going to set this one up. And no one cared. People were like Nah…no. What else? And I was like Oh?
And then years…years went by before I set up one of my own scripts because I learned very quickly that when you want to be a working writer, it’s not like you write scripts and then sell them to people. Most jobs you ever work are you write scripts for other people based on their ideas or pre-existing material. So it’s not like people are looking for original scripts as much as it’s Hey, we need a writer to rewrite that draft of the NINJA TURTLES movie. Or we bought the IP for some eighties cartoon and we need a writer to write a script for it.
So I very quickly realized Oh, I actually have to work very hard now to go to meetings and meet producers and try to get an assignment is what it’s called in order to get paid to write stuff. And for years that all I did. I mean to this day it’s my primary source of income is that I just do assignment work which is a hard job. Like you spend half your time trying to get the next assignment and then the little free time you do have you try to work on an original script and you hopefully can sell it to someone some day.
Question For The Viewers: What was your favorite part of this story?