Cell phone in the mountains
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My first produced screenplay

by Adam Chanzit

It’s 4:30AM when I get the email. I am stepping out the door of my apartment in darkness, old Volvo packed for a month-long, all expenses paid writing residency in the remote mountains of Northern California. I glance down at my phone. It’s from my manager, only a few lines long: They want to make your script. They want to start shooting in three months.

Suddenly instead of passing a quiet month off the grid in artistic reverie, I am hooked to my devices: evaluating the director’s take, negotiating a contract, pouring over every beat of the script with the director and producers, and hastily writing new drafts so we can make offers to actors. And at every turn, I wonder if the whole endeavor will collapse. I certainly am not complaining, but the poets and painters at the residency must think I am some Hollywood tool: I can get a few bars of cell reception on a hillock overlooking the Pacific, so there I am, pacing much of the day, running a nervous hand through my hair, chasing reception, and clashing horribly with the serene landscape.

I sometimes wonder if I’m allergic to a normal, linear path. It’s not that I have a philosophical bent against one; in fact, a straightforward route sounds pleasant. It just hasn’t been my way. I’ve never taken the internship to get the job — or followed a conventional trajectory, even for a writer. Instead of packing up my playwriting degree from Yale and hopping on the Metro North to Grand Central like most of my theater-making classmates, I decided to move to China on a fellowship, wandering remote Daoist temples, living with and learning from monks. I eventually did go to graduate school… but in Chinese literature. And I guess I spend writing retreats hooked to my cell!

I eventually moved to Los Angeles with traction on a film script, but the development process died quietly on the vine in that way the feature world seems to have perfected. One afternoon when I was feeling particularly despondent, I started writing an intensely personal script with just a few characters. I called it 3 Nights in the Desert.

I didn’t worry about an outline or the fall of the act breaks. I didn’t worry about genre. I didn’t worry if it was too dialogue heavy or if scenes exceeded five pages. I never planned to show it to reps or producers. This one was for me.

On location in the desert

On the set of “3 Nights in the Desert”
Photos courtesy of Adam Chanzit

Maybe I’d go raise $10K on Kickstarter and shoot it over one wild weekend. The work was partly inspired by my relationship to a close friend who had passed away. I’d tried once before to write about him, but it had been too close to home, too sentimental; now I was taking the essence of the experiences and creating composite characters, transmuting the past into something fictional — and amidst this cathartic frenzy, I sensed it might be working.

Adam Chanzit

Adam Chanzit on set

Several months later when pitching to write a thriller on assignment, I was asked about my process, and I happened to mention in passing the experience of writing 3 Nights. Of course they requested the script as an additional writing sample. I was truly hesitant to send this indie drama because it was so far from the genre I was pitching and I desperately needed the job to pay rent. But fortified with a glass (or three) of wine, I gave it a glance and hit “send”. In my experience, the path of a screenwriter is mostly composed of taking long shots. But in this case, I wasn’t even taking a shot! I never imagined that a few months later I’d be standing amidst crew and trailers in the desert, watching this personal story being shot with actors I’d heard of.

The process of seeing my script produced has been thrilling, terrifying, and surreal, in part because the way it happened felt so unexpected. It’s in our nature to draw lessons of cause and effect from past experience, but of course the lessons may or may not hold true under future conditions. Still, the takeaway is hard to ignore: when you write in a deeply personal way, heart exposed and raw, the work is likely to reach others. So perhaps this unexpected turn of events shouldn’t have been so unexpected after all?

Adam Chanzit

About Adam Chanzit

Adam Chanzit is a screenwriter and playwright who has come to Los Angeles by way of Denver, Beijing, and Berkeley. He has earned degrees from Yale in playwriting and Berkeley in Chinese Literature, and has been a MacDowell Colony Fellow and Djerassi Resident Artist. His plays The Great Divide and Down to This were produced last year in the Bay Area, and his screenplays include the indie feature, 3 Nights in the Desert, produced this past year for a 2014 release, a co-written adaptation of the novel, The Piano Tuner, and a Chinese action film for Universal Pictures International. Please follow on Twitter: @adamchanzit

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