Breaking into Hollywood
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Breaking through ‘The Wall’

by Dwain Worrell

True or false? It just takes one script to break a writer into the industry… True and false. One script can break through that barrier between Hollywood Land and No Man’s Land, but that one script is smudged and smeared with the DNA of countless failed scripts.

The Wall, which was optioned by Amazon Studios and led to representation by CAA and Madhouse Entertainment, was written on a whim. The fastest script I ever wrote and the one I expected the least of made me appear as an overnight success to those who had read it. Though the story of The Wall, and the bricks that laid its foundation, is abundantly longer and more complex than meets the eye.

In 2005 I had never written a script but I mustered what credentials I did have — a degree in theater, a concentration in writing and dramaturgy — and brought them to the gatekeepers in the film industry. For the first time I discerned the blockade that stands between the writer and the industry — I got no job, no representation, not even a glance of attention.

In need of money, I quickly found myself on a plane to Beijing. Teaching English became my immediate trade as I studied Mandarin along the way. The cost of living in China was low, and the workload for a teacher was about the same.

As I’ve found, another barrier between being a working writer and a writer working on ‘something’ is the complacency that accumulates after rejection. Keeping at it is as challenging as mastering structure and dialogue, if not harder.

Thankfully I kept writing scripts, a determination born out of a genuine excitement for telling compelling stories. What inspired me and continues to inspire are great films. Recent examples are Whiplash and Gravity, films that I envy and idolize because they tap into the very essence of what it means to be human. I aspire to echo the same resonance into audiences, almost like a cinematic empathy, that on a deeper level comes from a very human need to be understood.

During my 9 years in China, the rejection letters from production companies, managers and agencies kept piling up, easily hundreds of nos and the occasional thanks but no thanks. As a young writer I felt an overburdening urgency to write that successful script. In a rush and out of control, I followed trends (i.e. what types of scripts were selling). Soon urgency became desperation, desperation turned into despair, and then hitting my thirties and ready to give up.

While in China I had an idea for a script that would eventually be dubbed The Wall. Something small, that I could, perhaps, direct myself. I instinctively turned up my nose for those very same reasons — too small, too low concept. Instead I spent the next two years on two or three scripts. Big, high concept ‘masterpieces’ that no one was quite interested in reading.

Thankfully I didn’t write The Wall years earlier. The ten to fifteen screenplays that I wrote before I found success were training materials, literary momentum that propelled me into The Wall.

I wrote The Wall based on the true story of an Iraqi sniper and the American soldier who crosses his path. Simple plot, one location and written in just over two weeks. I thought the story was good but never imaged that within that same month I would be in Hollywood taking meetings with Warner Bros. and Sony.

In retrospect, The Wall isn’t a single script but an accumulation of all of my previously written material, residue of other characters, with evocations of past dialogue.

The story of The Wall is not an overnight success story but the story of over a decade of writing, countless unproduced screenplays and a barrier that has finally been chipped into.

Looking back, the struggles I faced aren’t at all dissimilar from the challenges other struggling writers face currently. And in that space I would encourage writers to seek out screenplay contests, Nicholl and Austin among others, move towards fellowships and The Black List. These are all vehicles that help place your story in the hands of the movers and shakers.

Beyond this, my most important advice of all is to push past the noise of the How to Write books and conferences, pitch-fests and the script doctors so that you can write. The majority of a budding writer’s time should be spent writing. Read, yes; network, yes; but most importantly, write.

Dwain Worrell

About Dwain Worrell

Dwain Worrell is a Barbados born screenwriter and novelist. His project The Wall is currently in development at Amazon Studios and another of his scripts, Operator, is in post production at Lionsgate. Please follow on Twitter @DwainAWorrell

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