So You Want to Be a Working Screenwriter …

If screenwriting is your “spark,” what do you need to know? Photo: Pixar

Mike Jones is a journalist turned screenwriter two times over. First in the late ’90s, when his stint as the managing editor of Filmmaker Magazine at the height of the indie-film boom inspired him to make a go of it himself, with a series of scripts that drew upon his upbringing in small-town Texas. He would spend nearly a decade in the Hollywood trenches … until the 2007 writers strike led him to rejoin the ranks of ink-stained wretches at Variety, where he led the trade mag’s coverage of film festivals. If the first time Jones became a former journalist was on purpose, the second time was by accident — the recession hit. “I’ll tell you, the first person who is going to be laid off when Variety has layoffs is the managing editor of film festivals,” he says.

Jones subsequently reinvented himself as a genre writer, and his work caught the attention of Pixar, who brought him in as a freelancer in 2013. He is now the animation studio’s senior story and creative artist, a member of the “brain trust” that collectively makes Pixar’s major creative decisions. Alongside directors Pete Docter and Kemp Powers (himself also a former journalist), Jones co-wrote the screenplay for the studio’s latest feature, Soul, a movie about the tension between single-mindedly following your “spark” and being happy with the life you’ve got. Which got us thinking: What advice would he give to others who dream of writing for the movies? (Just, you know, hypothetically.) In the course of two phone conversations, Jones gave his best advice to aspiring screenwriters.

Know Your Own Voice

Focus on what you have to say. As soon as you can identify it, as soon as you can dig inside that well of yourself and find that thing that you can communicate authentically and honestly, then you should do all that you can to pursue it. You have to try to find a way to get that script on the top of the pile and you have to use every trick you possibly can, but the best thing to have is to know what your voice is. You take a Robert McKee course and you can probably put together a structurally nice script, but does it have honesty? The scripts that actually get noticed are the ones that have a strong voice and a strong point of view.

My voice was about my upbringing [being] a skinny awkward kid that likes punk rock and movies in south Texas, so I had a lot to say about that. But it’s also finding a voice within the stuff that inspires you. I loved Horton Foote, who wrote Tender Mercies. Last Picture Show and Midnight Cowboy. Those movies spoke to me, because I knew those characters inside and out. That was what I wanted to write; I needed to find a way to write it my own way.

Don’t Wait

When I was at Filmmaker Magazine, independent film was exploding. Suddenly this movement was happening. It was a great front-row seat — the thing I was getting from talking to all these filmmakers and producers was that these were people who didn’t wait. They didn’t send their scripts out and wait for somebody to say, “Yes, we’ll make it.” They just went and did it, over and over again. They would write something specifically to be shot.

Just being around that energy gave me the courage and electricity I needed. I went back home during the weekends and after work and said, “Can I write something that I could shoot myself?” It was those early scripts, writing about my upbringing, that launched my career.

If, Say, You Happen to Be a Film Journalist, Don’t Muddy the Waters

In the beginning, I found it very difficult to shift between being a journalist to somebody and then saying, “Hey, want to read my script?” It was not right. You just don’t do that. First of all, it’s a giant conflict of interest. Second of all, it’s like, “What are you really here for? Do you want to interview me about the movie I just made, or do you want me to read your script?” I never ended up using my journalism credentials to further my screenwriting. Sometimes, I would be sending scripts out and I would get a response back from producers and they would go, “Are you the Mike Jones from Filmmaker Magazine?” Then I would go, “Yeah, yeah, I am. Look, I’m not a journalist right now, please check it out.” Still, there was that prejudice about it: I don’t know if you could be both. I got that sense from a lot from people.

Maybe Don’t Quit Your Day Job

I wrote a script called EvenHand that was made into a movie that screened at SXSW, but that didn’t get me an agent or anything. After that, I wrote this film called Miller. I got it to a producer, the producer got it to a hungry casting agent, the casting agent got it to Chris Cooper and Marcia Gay Harden and Scarlett Johansson, and they all attached themselves. Suddenly, the movie was real. It didn’t find any traction with any financiers, but because it looked at one point like the movie was going to happen, I finally got a call from a manager. That would not have happened had not the movie appeared to be something real, rather than one of the thousands of scripts that are written every year that inundate everybody. But after that, it took me forever to get work. I think I might have quit my job and then had to ask for it back.

If You Go to L.A., Know Where to Pee

The way it works in Hollywood is that everything takes forever. I was flying back and forth between New York and L.A., pounding the pavement on the “water tour,” as they call it: You would have a meeting in Santa Monica right next to another meeting at Warner, and you’re drinking bottled water at all these meetings. You only have a little bit of time to get to the next meeting, so you have to find a place to pee. It’s so hard. Eventually, I started to map out all these places in L.A. where I could pull over and pee. I wanted to share this with all my other screenwriting friends: “If you’re going from Culver City to Warner, here are four places to pee on the way.”

When in Doubt, Think of What Would Be the Most Fun

I would swing at everything. I was meeting with production companies on a lot of low-end stuff, and I wasn’t getting any traction on any of them. I had a couple of good samples, I just didn’t have a name. I had a meeting at Stan Winston Productions, and I thought, “What am I possibly going to meet with him about? I’ve been writing these small-town Texas dramas. He wants monsters or robots.” Then I went: “Oh, robots.” So literally hours before, I came up with just a pitch straight out of nothing. It was giant robots fighting for pink slips — and this was before BattleBots, before Real Steel. I was desperate, so I pitched this crazy robots idea and they bought it. I didn’t really have any skin in the game, particularly with Stan Winston, so it was easy to go, “Fuck it, what could be fun for me to write?”

Know That It Probably Won’t Work Out …

There is a certain level of working screenwriter that may have been able to make six figures back then, but if you don’t work for two years, then that six figures becomes five. After the robot movie came and went, I was out of money. I needed something right away. I finally had gotten an agent at this point, and he said, “They’re looking for a writer for Hollow Man 2.” Hollow Man is a ridiculous movie, but I decided that I was going to make Hollow Man 2 even better. It was going to be like The Godfather Part II of the Hollow Man series. I thought of this really silly, almost art-film version of Hollow Man 2. I went in guns blazing on this pitch. I remember they stopped me five minutes in and they go, “Look, we really appreciate you coming in with this pitch, but you understand that this is a straight-to-video movie?” I went home licking my wounds that I couldn’t even get Hollow Man 2.

… But Lie to Yourself Anyway

Whenever I would take jobs to adapt this book or rewrite that script, I would always go into them thinking, “Of course it’s going to get made.” There’s this steady con job that a working screenwriter does to themselves in order to get through the day. If I had any understanding that what I was writing would never get made, I would do a terrible job. So every single project was, “Yeah, this is the one.”

Be Nimble

Everybody always tells you that if you want to get your career to that next level, you’ve got to go to L.A. So we decided to pack up everything and move to L.A. right after my son was born. I went there with no money, and you could see the strike coming. It was right over the hill. Everything that I had lined up, I watched it fade away. It was heartbreaking.

Before the strike started, I was writing an adaptation of a book called The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break. The Minotaur is a short-order cook in a steakhouse in Wichita, Kansas, and he’s a shell of the monster he used to be. I adapted it with the blessing of the author and I was ready to send it out. But when I got to L.A. and saw the strike brewing, I decided to hold on to it because I didn’t want to waste its chance. That script stayed in the drawer for two years until Variety downsized. It was a blow to me at the time to lose that job, but I felt fortunate that I had that script. It got a lot of notice and it got me work on a different level than I had had before. I changed genre: I stopped being the moody Texas art-film writer and started being the guy who could meld fantasy into reality.

I was able to make a living as a screenwriter for 20-plus years, because I was always able to change my skill set, or make it seem new. After Minotaur there was a period where I was back out of work again. I decided to write a script called In the Event of a Moon Disaster, based on the speech that William Safire wrote for President Nixon in the event that the Apollo 11 astronauts were trapped on the moon. It was an alternate history: What would happen if those two guys were trapped on the moon and couldn’t get off? That script got me a whole other round of different kinds of work.

The thing I learned well was to take my appreciation for genre and to use it as a way of revitalizing the story that I was trying to tell. As soon as I hit upon that, I feel like that’s what kept me paying the rent. Money got tight sometimes, but I was always able to bounce back. I think it was because I was always malleable about the kind of genre that I wanted to write in.

Ideally, Get to a Place Where You Can Say No

My first four years at Pixar were as an independent contractor jumping from director to director. I would write for other studios as well, but now I could say no. I didn’t need to hustle for the work that I wouldn’t write well; I didn’t need to go after the Hollow Man 2 movies. I started to say no, which is such a power. You want to get to a place where you can say no. The first reason is you should know what you can write and what you can’t. Second, when you say no, it gives you this air of, Wait a minute, did he just say no? I found that the projects that I was getting when I could say no were much more fun.

But Know When to Say Yes

 I was fortunate to be in the right place at the right time, enough times. But an opportunity, if you’re not there for it, won’t happen to you. When Pixar came and said, “We want you to be our full-time staff writer,” the choice in my mind was: I can say no and continue to write for Hollywood and maybe write four to five scripts a year, and have none of them made; or I can sign on with Pixar and write one movie that takes four years to make and it’s probably going to be really great. At that point in my career, after pounding the pavement in Hollywood for years, I said, you know what? I’m ready. I’m ready to devote a chunk of my life to one movie.

So You Want to Become a Working Screenwriter