Recently, I met with Matt Itson, the Comedy Genre prize winner in the 2012 Just Effing Entertain Me Screenwriting Competition for his script, Redundant (now being read at Linda Seifert Management in London!). Matt is of course totally delightful, and I asked him to write a blog post about his adventures in writing – what made him enter the competition, what he plans to do next, etc. I was delighted and inspired by what he wrote and I think you will be too:
On the evening of November 13th 2009 – Friday November 13th as a matter of fact, I found myself flat on my back in the middle of a busy street, staring at the rain. An old man whose eyesight had long abandoned him drove his Mercedes through a red light and then through me, presenting one of those rare moments of clarity where life’s accomplishments and regrets are instantaneously weighed. Near the top of the list of regrets was that I’d written a screenplay – or at least a 203 KB Word document that could hammered into a decent screenplay – and I had done nothing with it. I hadn’t even let my own wife read it. If I was writing about this story, this would obviously be the inciting incident. My protagonist would take this near miss and realize his potential, sending off query letters and embracing life in an inspiring and no doubt hilarious manner. I’d probably even include a montage of him running on a tread mill, learning to cook, and taking that Spanish class he’d always avoided, all set to something by ‘The Fray’. But life’s not a screenplay, and mine sat there on the computer for another two-and-a-half years, taking up hard drive space next to an ever-increasing iTunes Library.
It wasn’t until I felt something more visceral at the beginning of 2012 – a general emptiness that’s leagues more dangerous than bruising or broken bones – that I decided to do something with it. Writing, I decided, could save me, and I was sure of this because it had before. The first draft of the screenplay had coincided with a prolonged bout of unemployment, and the re-write would cure my current case of aimlessness, only I needed to make a serious stab at it. Writing had always been a hobby, but I wanted to see if I had the goods to make it into something more. I read all the ‘major’ books on screenwriting – ‘Story’, ‘Save the Cat’, ‘The Screenwriter’s Bible’, etc. – and when I was done with that, I read every screenplay I could get my hands on, both professional and amateur. Then I directed a-not-too-kind eye at my own creation. It was an unqualified mess. But still, I knew there was a good story there. So, I got to work, and a few months later, I had something that resembled a script. But was it any good? Or had I been wasting my time?
That’s where Julie Gray comes in. I had no idea screenwriting competitions existed. I’d participated in a few filmmaking competitions, but my ideas had always been altered or altogether thrown out in favour of the collaborative nature of filmmaking. With a screenwriting competition, it was all me. I could really show off. But I wasn’t ready for the Nicholl or Page. I needed a small, but well-regarded contest in which to send up a test balloon. And competition entrants seemed to agree that the Just Effing Entertain Me Contest was a great one, not just for the prizes, which included contact with A-list screenwriters, but for the care with which Julie ran it. She loves writers – genuinely loves them – and that was evident even before we met. So I sent off the newly re-written ‘Redundant’ and waited for any scrap of affirmation.
Turns out, I hadn’t been wasting my time. Wait – strike that. I had been wasting my time, only it wasn’t the time I’d spent writing. At each round, I found my name still listed under those being considered for the Grand Prize, and each time, I was both bewildered at the possibility of winning and angry at myself that I’d not invested in my writing before. I was seeking a smidgeon of affirmation, and I got a truckload of it. When it was all said and done, I’d won Best Comedy, and received the greatest compliment a writer could hope for – I had something to say (and some of it was actually funny).
Two weeks after the contest ended, I was lucky enough to meet Julie in London while she was speaking at the London Screenwriter’s Festival, hosted by Chris Jones. She has a type of energy that envelopes you instantly, and the warmth and encouragement that bleeds through onto her website is magnified by a factor of ten in the flesh. I knew I could rest easy that I’d made a mentor – and friend – for life. Unfortunately, it took her all of about ten minutes to ask the question I was dreading but had wholly anticipated – ‘What are you writing, now?’ I had some ideas and vaguely remember rattling off a few at her, but the answer was clear on my face. Nothing. I still hadn’t learned my lesson. Did I have excuses? Sure, and believe me, they’re good ones. I have a full-time job, a part-time job, AND I’m a part-time law student. When do I have time to write? But I do. And both Julie and I knew I did.
‘You have a choice’, she said, peering over her glasses. I could continue to dabble in writing, dipping in and out of it, or I could take this win and run with it. That doesn’t mean to throw everything over the side, but it does mean I need to take writing seriously – respect it. Assign time every day of every week that’s just for writing. And I know it’s hard, believe me. Writing a screenplay is hard. Selling one is even harder, and I’m not under any illusions about how tough the market is. You might as well try to hit a 400-footer off a 100 mph fastball using a No.2 pencil. But I know now what’s harder than all of that, and that’s living with wasted potential. That’s a special kind of hell. And that’s the visceral, empty feeling that started this whole thing.
So, if you’re reading this, and you’ve been kicking around the idea of writing a screenplay or if you’ve written one and don’t know what to do, take my advice. Re-visit it. Write it, re-write it, and send it to the Just Effing Contest 2013. You might end up getting the affirmation writers so dearly crave and make the same promise I made: ‘I won’t waste this’. And you’ll make the same friend I made in Julie that will help you keep it.