Career Spotlight is our feature where we interview someone about their line of work
This month’s spotlight features Paul Wolansky, California-based Screenwriter, Producer and Associate Professor at the Chapman University, Lawrence and Kristina Dodge College of Film and Media Arts. Make sure to read Part 1 and Part 2 in advance!
Q: What advice do you have for people considering this industry?
I’ve been teaching for 30 years and I’ve been involved in editing, directing, and particularly writing movies for longer than that amount of time. I’ve had some super successful students. At USC I had a student named Andrew Marlowe, he ended up writing several big movies including Air Force One, which was a Harrison Ford movie about Air Force One being hijacked, and then he was a showrunner and creator of a show called Castle which ran for seven years on ABC. Other people who have been very successful are Kathy Yuspa and Josh Goldsmith that wrote the Mel Gibson film What Women Want and the Jennifer Garner film 13 Going on 30 and they wrote for King of Queens for a long time. From Chapman, both Ross Duffer and Matt Duffer took screenwriting with me, they’re now known collectively as the Duffer brothers. They created the show Stranger Things on Netflix and they just signed a nine-figure deal with Netflix to produce series, movies and events. It’s hard to even imagine that amount of money. But that’s a tiny, tiny fraction of the number of students that I’ve had. At this point I’ve probably had several thousand students. A lot of them have worked in the business, but whether they’ve worked anything that comes close to matching their dreams, that’s another story.
To go into it thi
nking, I’m going to get a next Steven Spielberg, or I’m going to create something like Star Wars, or I’m going to be like Martin Scorsese, or I’m going to be like Jane Campion, I think the odds of actually achieving that are very low. It’s sort of like buying an extremely expensive lottery ticket. You’re going to go to college, so it could be four years of college or three years of graduate school, some students have done both. You could easily graduate $200,000 in debt. If you’re going to be a big success you can pay for that, but it’s not like being a doctor, or dentist, or a lawyer where the odds are, over time, you will be able to pay that back and do very well. It really is rare, the one in a hundred, or the one in a thousand, that’s going to achieve a high level of success.
The way I look at it is that you have to love the process. You have to like working as an editor, or as a sound person, or as a writer, and like it for its own sake. It’s the thrill of making a movie, it’s the thrill of hearing people laugh at a line that you’ve written, or be moved by something that you have written, or directed, or edited, but you have to take your satisfaction from the actual doing of it. I’ve known people who have sold scripts for a million dollars. It happens every once in a while, but it’s extremely, extremely rare. Sometimes people think, I’m the exception. I’m the one who’s going to do it. I think most people that go in with that attitude end up being unhappy doing it. You have to really love it for itself, enjoy it for what you’re doing. Then if those things happen, it’s great, it’s extra, it’s something wonderful that happens, but to appreciate it because it doesn’t happen for most people. Doing it has to be its own reward.
I think that the people that take a joy in doing it communicate that joy, that enthusiasm, to all the people around them. If they’re lucky enough to have an audience, the audience picks up on it and responds to it. I think that’s the way to enjoy the relationship with the career and hopefully make enough money. I say to my students, you have to have a job that pays the rent and puts food on the table because as writers, they may not sell a script or be paid to write in their first or second year out of school. It may take five years, it may take 10 years, it may take longer. When you’re 22 or 25 or 27 years old, 10 years is a huge part of your life. You have to enjoy the process, you have to enjoy the actual pursuit of it and doing it, rather than focus solely on the goal, even though people who are goal-oriented and disciplined improve their odds of succeeding.
Q: What training/education would you recommend?
There’s no one training that is better than others. What I’ve noticed is people that succeed get the overall training, whether that means they studied English, or history, or creative writing, or have gone to film school. There are a lot of different trainings. I think it’s also having enough life experience of having done certain things and being able to convey that in their writing or in their work.
It’s important to know what you love, have a sense of what you’re good at, and also sometimes to have a specialty, like you happen to have experienced something that you really care about and are passionate about, and then can turn it into a story, a script, or a movie. A lot of times it’s finding what is idiosyncratic and unique to the individual. You learn the techniques of, how do you write stories? How do you please an audience? How do you tell a moving, dramatic, or comic story that will make people laugh or make people cry? But you also have to find something that is only yours, where there aren’t another thousand people that could tell that same story and you’re in competition with.
It’s finding that unique aspect within one’s own life experience. It could be a recurring dream, it could be a job one had, it would be a relationship, and then using all the techniques, all the storytelling, writing, directing, filmmaking techniques to then make a really strong piece of work out of it. I think that’s probably the best possible angle to take, where you have an opportunity to separate yourself as an artist, especially if you want to do it in film, from the other tens of thousands of people who are also trying to do the same thing.
If someone wants to have a lot of money, probably better off going into banking or if you have the scientific skill, to be a doctor. If you want to have the joy of being creative, then you can do it. You have to enjoy the process and find that thing that’s unique to oneself. Lead with that and hopefully you’ll find the right combination of people and circumstances, get people who champion you, and you find your vision, your movie, and make a good piece of work that affects people.
We hope you enjoyed this series on what it is like working as a professional screenwriter and professor! Stay tuned for more Career Spotlight posts by following us on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and LinkedIn.
Interview by Nina Hornjatkevyc
Registered Psychologist and Practice Lead
Calgary Career Counselling and Synthesis Psychology