Crossing the Pond: Ten Tips for Making it in LA
Ever considered trying to launch your film career from LA? Concerned about the outcome of the next British election and considering your options? Alan Denman was a pivotal part of the London indie film community, notably as Chair of the Screenwriter's Workshop and Head of Development for Euroscript until he left to the US in 2004. Tom Fogg interviewed him here, long ago, and indeed when I started working for Shooting People he offered me free desk space. Now, with his wife Ayesha Walker (pictured below), he runs Stinging Bull Films from Hollywood and has already made his first feature.
Alan has written for Netribution a fascinating and in-depth account of his experience as a Brit in LA, learning to speak 'American', getting a Visa, writing a sellable script, as well as ten tips for making it in a very different film environment. It's 4,000 words of insider gold-dust, and worth bookmarking and reading fully when you have the time.
Six thousand feet up in the San Bernadino Mountains of Southern California. Day One of Principal Photography: a long shot of our young lead actress walking along a deserted forest road. She goes ahead on her own – and suddenly screams. That wasn’t in the script, I think to myself. I look past her to observe a large brown bear crossing the set. Principal photography is suspended as she runs back to join the main party. Fortunately she hasn’t been mauled or eaten. Indeed, the bear seems not even to have noticed her. Nervously we all creep forward to watch the creature happily snuffling around in a neighbour’s garden before moving off. Such are the dangers, thrills and indelible memories of filmmaking.
I was there in California, a British director, shooting my first feature, which I had also written. The crew worked like Trojans, and the young American cast had so much energy it was impossible to persuade them to get to bed at night. Then in the morning they’d be up early to go through their lines with me and help rewrite my very British dialogue.
This was my first experience of how different filmmaking in America is. Though obvious to me now, coming then from the only culture I knew – Britain – it was a big surprise to realize how differently people spoke on the other side of the Pond. You think Americans speak English? Think again – they speak American, and I needed to learn their language. The first read-through of the script was a comedy of confusion. We might as well have been speaking French and Greek, for all we understood each other. In a combination of wisdom and desperation I gave them free rein to improvise. It worked. What resulted was dialogue that was vibrant and fascinating, something I could never have dreamed up in my drafty North London flat. It was, to quote my American cast, “awesome”.
I had been writing screenplays and making short films for ten years and had reached a sort of glass ceiling: I could have gone on making shorts in Britain, but what I really wanted to do was shoot a feature. So I wrote a micro budget, small-scale sci-fi thriller, a sort of “UFO Blair Witch” about young people in a remote place looking for aliens and disappearing one by one. My original plan – a very rough one – was to take a bunch of young actors to Cheshunt Marshes, a strange area outside North London with murky lakes and towering pylons, and, hoping for the best, shoot a semi-improvised script. Not a great plan, maybe. But then I sent the script to a good friend of mine who was studying screenwriting at UCLA, one of the big universities, in Los Angeles. There he passed on the script to a producer, who loved it and was himself looking for a project of that scale and budget to produce. The timing was perfect. Serendipity. Click.
And so, four months later, in the summer of 2003 I flew to LA and then drove out in convoy with the producer, cast and crew to the San Bernadino Mountains to direct my feature film, which, after much discussion and development, was now called Alien Game. The shoot was immensely hard work and at the same time hugely rewarding, a practical degree course in filmmaking compressed into four weeks. The skies were high, blue and empty, and the mountains epically spectacular. I loved being there. Thus in innocence and hope began my journey cross the Pond.
With growing self-belief and a magnetic curiosity towards Los Angeles, the heart of the global film industry, and the vast opportunities available it offers, my wife and I relocated there in the summer of 2004 and have been living there ever since....
The first challenge facing anyone going to live in Los Angeles is the sheer scale and structure of the place. Giant billboards, a complex motorway system inside the town, streets that run for miles and miles. If you have an appointment on Sunset Boulevard, don’t think you can grab the first parking space and find it on foot: Sunset Boulevard is 22 miles long – like walking from Marble Arch to Slough!
Los Angeles is a vast, sprawling urban behemoth, in area the size of the South-East of England. It is twenty cities fused together into what at first appears to be one homogeneous mass. There is no centre and anyone coming from Britain or Europe will most likely be utterly disoriented.
Get a car. To attend to that Q & A screening with David Fincher and Brad Pitt in Hollywood, or that film party on Mulholland Drive, or that indie producers networking event on Wilshire Boulevard (a mere 18 miles long) you will need a good set of wheels, something comfy and reliable – and don’t worry about engine size. At 3 bucks/£2 a gallon trekking around the megapolis is cheap.
You will also need time to orient yourself, both geographically and psychologically. This is a new world. Where do you start? You can try joining BAFTA/LA but you will tend to meet other Brits – and what’s the point of that?
Step outside your box and meet other kinds of people. You can go to all sorts of networking events but you will most likely encounter other writers and filmmakers at a similar level to you. Who you really want to meet are industry professionals who can in effect guide you and help you to navigate the Hollywood labyrinth.
Think carefully before you hook up with a manager or agent. It may sound good to say you’ve got one (doesn’t everyone who’s somebody in Hollywood have an agent and manager?) – but don’t be fooled . It’s a day at the races. Managers and agents are backing horses. You are new, the outsider, at 500-1 odds. D’ you think they ‘re really going to walk you around the block, show you the ropes? They don’t have time and the risk of not making money on a newcomer is high. Of course, if you are already successful – then that’s another story.
I was fortunate to already have another feature project with producers in LA attached, and within four weeks I also had a manager to represent me, a young fresh-faced jock, who for some reason kept looking at my shoes. Still, he liked my script. The gates of Hollywood, it seemed, were swinging wide open to let me in. But little did I know then, in my naivety, that that was only the beginning: my path, my learning curve, as for many people in the film industry, was to be long and winding.
Believing that my manager would instruct and guide me through the intricacies of the American film industry, I soon discovered that in Los Angeles managers are only interested in you when you are hot, when you have a screenplay that they think they can sell. My script had a black female protagonist. My producers got it to Halle Berry’s management. She had just won an Oscar for Monster’s Ball and she was red hot . Her name would help raise finance. Her development person loved the script. My producers had meetings with them. I started planning my own Oscar’s acceptance speech, but then, without explanation, as often happens in Hollywood, the phone stopped ringing, calls weren’t returned and things fell away. I was on my own again and had to draw my own map. Where did I fit into the American film industry? What kind of writer and filmmaker did I want to be there? What sorts of stories should I tell?
Remember, you’re in the film business. Write a script you can sell. To really succeed in Hollywood you have to be both a creative artist and a shrewd businessperson.
Still hurting from my Halle Berry experience, I booked a distribution consultation for my feature at Film Independent. Sat across the table, a seasoned international distributor politely informed me of the brutal reality of trying to finance a film that was not only a drama - traditionally the most difficult type of film to sell – but one that had a black female British lead and was set in two continents, and therefore not exactly low budget.. I’d just spent five years developing a script that raising finance on would be tougher than climbing the north face of the Eiger. Then I had my light bulb moment! Rather than spend another five years writing a script few people could risk financing, why not produce a one page outline and show it to this guy to see if he thought this was something that had had commercial potential? I was asking now thinking like a business person. He agreed. I wrote outlines for two supernatural thrillers, which he approved. Then I wrote the scripts and we became friends.
Get into action! Don’t wait for someone to do it for you. Have your scripts and projects ready to go. Rehearse your pitches (you’d be surprised who you can bump into in Starbucks). Get business cards printed and be ready to perform that ritual exchange of contact details, to “card up”, as they say there. Even better, write a short script and shoot it, or shoot a promo for that feature of yours, then you can truthfully say you are directing a film – and you will make real, working contact with others in the industry. Above all, it’s HOW you do these things. Americans love successful people, so act and communicate with confidence, style, even panache. And you’re a Brit, which for some strange reason gets you major brownie major in America, so use it – add a touch of quirky eccentricity or a little High Grant impression. Whatever works, just get yourself noticed..
Five and more years on I have no regrets about moving to LA. Working with immensely talented people from all over the world, I have gratefully gathered a huge wealth of experiences and insights into the writing and filmmaking process, and this has helped me to draw clear comparisons between working in America and Britain.
One of the biggest things I have learned is that despite appearing to be similar cultures Britain and America do in fact possess some fundamental differences. They are indeed “two nations divided by a common language”. It is not as easy as it may at first seem for British screenwriters and filmmakers to adapt to working in America. There are certain fundamental differences between the two cultures and we are by nature so embedded in our own society that it is difficult for us to observe ourselves. Firstly, therefore, let’s take a brief look at America and how its film industry is structured.
The United States is very commercially driven. There is no financial safety net as there is in the UK and Europe. The saying goes in America that you are only two paychecks away from bankruptcy. There are more millionaires in the US than anywhere else but take a bus to Skid Row in downtown LA and you will find hordes of homeless people sleeping on the streets, many of whom once had jobs and houses. It’s a Third World scene. Elsewhere, ragged, defeated people begging on the sidewalks and at traffic lights are a way of life that soon becomes familiar.
Likewise for the American film industry, there is no government funding, no safety net, and so it has had to survive completely on its own wits - and to do this films have to make money, which means giving audiences what they want. Movies have to entertain. This is essentially what makes American films successful – and often what they are criticized for – appealing to the broadest possible audience, “playing to the masses”.
Although these are broad generalizations, British writers and films, it seems to me, often feel a need to be didactic, to transmit a social message, and many of our stories have a gritty, downbeat, often depressing realism. British culture tends to be somewhat cynical and pessimistic whereas America is still a relatively young country and perceives itself as a land of opportunity. Forrest Gump really can meet the President (and sometimes even become the President!). Endings in American films are rarely tragic and depressing – and why should they be, if the aim of a film is to entertain? The ending is what audiences go out on and producers want them coming back to the next movie, and the next.
A number of factors coalesced in the formation of the US film industry: the invention of cinema, a swiftly growing nation with many ethnic groups all speaking their own languages, a rapidly swelling economy, talented refugees from Nazi Germany, and so on. A heady cauldron of creative fire and intense commercialism was created, these two elements feeding and supporting each other; and for this to work well films had to entertain their audiences.
Before you pitch your project, check in and ask yourself: is it entertaining? Will a story about drugs, violence and sexual abuse on a crumbling council estate in the north of England really provide the magical escapism that film audiences love? Is it likely to gross $2 billion at the box office, as has Avatar, a clichéd, simplistic but entertaining fantasy? Will your film, if ever produced, make any money at all?
Film is not theatre. Through the skillful use of the medium - image and sound – it is possible in film to create an artificial simulation of human emotions and experiences. This is the best, most exciting, use of the medium. James Cameron, despite the limitations of his story, does understand how to generate sensory and emotional intensity on screen. Talking about Avatar, Cameron said that he was not trying to push a political message but rather give audiences an experience of how it felt to have something precious and sacred destroyed.
In the best films we enter another world and are moved and stimulated – and the more intense that experience, the more pleasure an audience derives. How does it feel to be standing on a crumbling ledge with a thousand foot drop below you? How does it feel to be running through a battlefield with bullets flying around you? The more we as filmmakers grasp this principle, the more successful we will be. We have to let go of all restraint and allow our emotion and imagination takeover – something that in my view is not intrinsic to British sensibilities.
Open yourself up, break the mould, step out of your box. Many people fail because of blind spots. Running hand-in-hand with all the film events and courses are self-development programs. Go and learn public speaking or do an experimental acting class. Take a Tony Robins self-empowerment course or get yourself transformed at Landmark Education. All creativity is about risk, attempting to make something that hasn’t been before. Filmmaking is a gamble and not for the faint-hearted. Learn to break through your very British constraint. Feel the fear and do it anyway!
Britain has a great tradition of playwrights stretching back to Shakespeare, Marlowe and Johnson. Theatre is dialogue driven and so, to a lesser extent, is television. A film, on the other hand, as screenwriting guru Syd Fields has said, is “a story told in pictures”. As mentioned, Americans love Brits and they will swoon over a good British accent. However, our cultural heritage and our education does not count for all that much if you’re trying to sell a script in Hollywood. You don’t even have to be a great writer in your use of language. What matters is being able to tell a great story – or, more accurately, a great commercial story.
Now, with your newfound freedom and self-expression, let your imagination fly. Be playful, inventive, think “What if...?”. Could the gang on that crumbling council house estate turn out to be teen vampires? Could an innocent, frightened child on the estate discover a portal in a basement leading to another, better world? Or could two people in warring gangs risk all and fall in love? (OK, I know, that’s a Romeo and Juliet story yet again, but at least this gives the script some love and hope.)
There are a number of other distinctions between British and American screenwriting, though, again, these are generalizations and exceptions can always be found. Many British films are very culturally specific and will, therefore, not sell easily to other territories. If you are British you will of course automatically understand the context and get the story. However, American films tend to be more universal in their appeal, and this factor has helped them to sell to markets all over the world. One of the ways they have done this is to utilize the story model of the Hero’s Journey. The principle of a universal story model was first promoted by Joseph Campbell in his classic work The Hero With A Thousand Faces and reworked for the American film industry by Chris Vogler in his book, The Writer’s Journey.
In a Hero’s Journey story, the protagonist (hero) is called to leave his/her familiar world and journey into the unknown where through a series of intense encounters and a meeting with death he/she is transformed before finally returning to their “tribe”. Star Wars, Blade Runner and Unforgiven are all Hero’s Journeys. Billy Elliot, which of course had a very culturally specific context, is one too, and this, I am convinced, helped to give it a universal appeal.
The Hero’s Journey is an integral part of American mythology: in the 19th century, risking death, people journeyed three thousand miles west to California to discover wealth and a new life. In present times people in America and from all over the world give up jobs, family and friends to travel to Los Angeles, to the entertainment industry, to reinvent themselves and find fame and fortune. In Britain we do not have a similar mythology. We are an old, multi-layered culture, restrained by class and tradition. (This has its own rewards in British comedy, much of which is derived from a sense of social frustration and pessimism.)
Acknowledge yourself and that by traveling to LA you are in fact going on your own personal Hero’s Journey. Seeing your path as a Hero’s Journey will provide a useful perspective to guide you through the labyrinth. According to the Hero’s Journey model, you are likely to meet people who will want to help you (“Allies”), someone to guide you (“Mentor”), people who may entice and promise then turn out to be a waste of time (“Shapeshifters” – also known as bullsh-tters). You may also meet a Shadow, your antagonist, your nemesis, whose purpose is to test your resolve to the full. Seeing things this way may give you a deeper perspective, a handle on where you’re at – and where you’re going.
There are other significant general differences between British and American writing. Each of the following points require further exploration, of course, but in brief: American films are often high concept, whereas British films, it could be said, are “low concept”; British scripts are often domestic dramas, while American screenplays deal with more expansive and often extreme situations and are usually genre-based; British films tend to be more character-driven, American films are more focused on plot, on the “what-happens-next?”; British films rely more on dialogue whereas American movies are about visual action; the British imagination is often quirky and unconventional, whereas American screenplays are more formulaic and predictable.
There are vast resources for writers and filmmakers to tap into in LA: free screenings with Q and A’s with top directors and actors, independent film organizations (Filmmakers Alliance, Women In Film, Film Independent and many others) and of course the American Film Market every November, where you can meet producers, sales agents, distributors. If you do go to live in LA for any length of time, remember to keep your feet on the ground. Film is almost better than life itself, we may think – more intense, more real. But friends and building long-term relationships are hugely important in order to feel a connection and identification. Find your community. It’s not how many people you know, but who you know and the value of those relationships. It has taken time but my wife and I now have a great community of friends there, mostly but not all in the film industry, and those relationships are gold dust. Moreover, it is often through personal introduction you will get to meet people who can help you in your career. In LA there are only two degrees of separation between you and Steven Spielberg, or whoever you want to meet. For newcomers Los Angeles can be a very heady place - “dreamland” – and it is easy to get swept away by the glitz and glamour. People do have huge breakthroughs in their careers, first-time writers do occasionally sell a script for six figures, but generally overnight success takes ten years.
The weather is great, people are upbeat and the possibilities unlimited. You will want to come back, but you need time to put down roots and develop your own map of friends and contacts, so you will want to stay in Dreamland for as long as possible. So - get a good immigration lawyer. Most will give you a free consultation and tell you what sort of visa you can apply for. Go to a number of lawyers and compare personalities, fees and information. Be sure to ask them what their success rates are for getting the kind of visa you need. Also get a broader picture of the visa/immigration situation. The US is still in the grip of a severe economic recession and this is affecting how many visas they award. And if all else fails, marry an American!
This is the process I have gone through myself. My time in LA has given me a new perspective from which I have been able to question and define myself as a writer and filmmaker, which I could never have done if I had remained in Britain. My conclusion is that it is possible to combine the best of both cultures – imaginative individuality with a strong commercial awareness. Indeed, this is not only possible but desirable, for one of the elements that film audiences most respond to is a unique voice, an original vision. They want to see something new and different, and to be surprised and awakened.
It is with this mission in mind that my wife now run our own production company, Stinging Bull Films (www.stingingbullfilms.com). Our passion is to not only write but to make films. We have learned to think like producers, to be creative and flexible in our strategizing and to adapt our scripts to market conditions. Our clear aim is to be bi-coastal and combine the best of both cultures, British and American, and to produce films that are artistically unique and commercially successful.
Alan Denman was formerly a chair of the London Screenwriters Workshop and head of development for Euroscript. His short films were shown at the Cannes Film Festival and in 2003/2004 he wrote and directed the sci-fi thriller, Alien Game, in Lake Arrowhead, California. His wife and business partner is Ayesha Walker. They are currently engaged in producing their next feature “The Captain Who Never Went To Sea”.
Alan Denman 2010 - www.stingingbullfilms.com