A series of interviews with hard-working writers – by another hard-working writer!
by Kelly Jo Brick
Aspiring writers often wonder how the pros got where they are. The truth is, everyone’s story is different, but there are some common elements: dedication, persistence and hard work.
From a start as a wine and food critic to becoming an Emmy-nominated writer, Sterling Anderson’s dedication and drive led him to being an author, writing one of the most highly rated TV movies ever (CBS’s THE SIMPLE LIFE OF NOAH DEARBORN, starring Sidney Poitier), as well as writing for The Unit, Medium and writing screenplays for Disney, HBO and Columbia Pictures.
WHAT WAS YOUR FIRST WRITING JOB?
I volunteered for the first writing gig I could get and that was in the wine and food industry. I did restaurant and wine reviews for the St. Helena Star.
They ended up giving me a byline and I started doing some things on my own, like I decided I would interview the 10 top chefs in America and did an article like, “What do the 10 top chefs in America have in their refrigerator?” It was interesting because I did like Jeremiah Tower, Patrick Terrail, this little known guy named Wolfgang Puck, Mark Peel, Jonathan Waxman.
All the while I was studying film. I was reading film magazines and my goal was to write something about my experiences in the wine and food business in a novel.
TELL US ABOUT MAKING YOUR DECISION TO GET INTO SCREENWRITING.
I was in the middle of starting a winery that basically began in my garage with 50 cases and I think we went up to 1,500 cases, to 3,000 cases in less than 3 years. I took my severance pay and went to L.A., not knowing how it was going to turn out.
I had a lot at stake, I was a divorced father, I had children. It wasn’t like I could go down there and dabble. This had to work. I know that sounds small, but really, in the grand scheme of things, I did not have the option to fail. I had children to raise, child support to pay. So I couldn’t live the life of the starving artist for very long.
WHAT HAPPENED WHEN YOU GOT TO LA?
I actually did something very bold. I joined what’s called Sports L.A. At the time it was a 100,000 square foot gym on Sepulveda, it was where all the stars and celebrities went to work out like Magic Johnson to Don Johnson. Everyone worked out at this place. The membership was steep. It was like $2,500 a year. But I knew if I was going to do this I was gonna put myself right in the middle of the action.
I had a couple of friends, really successful actors and I looked them up. I sort of was feeling my way around. Running out of time and running out of money and options. I ended up going to an acting school to audit this legendary acting coach named Roy London. I wanted to put myself in the center of things and I ended up being in this class that had people like Sharon Stone, Gary Shandling, Hank Azaria, Brad Pitt and my friend Michael Woods actually took me over there. I started just networking with people.
HOW DID YOU FIRST GET REPRESENTATION AS A WRITER?
I wrote a screenplay and I had a friend that was in the industry who was an agent and I sent it to him and I said, “What do you think?” And he said, “It was the worst screenplay I ever read in my life.” So I threw that screenplay out and I wrote another one and I sent it to him. And he said, “It’s very good.”
That script got in the hands of a literary manager, one of the first at the time, her name was Sharona Fae. Sharona started taking that screenplay around town and I got 4 or 5 really big agencies wanting to sign me. I got an agent. I started getting meetings right away. I went into what’s called development hell. My agents and my manager wanted to introduce me to as many people as possible. I remember I had 53 meetings in 2 months.
WHAT WAS YOUR FIRST JOB AS A SCREENWRITER?
I had gotten a meeting with an executive at Columbia Pictures, and he said, “I read your screenplay. It’s fantastic. I’d like to get into business with you. Is there a book you’d want to work on?” And I just pitched this idea to him and he said, “Ok, here’s $40,000, the Guild minimum and go write it.” That was my first job. The script was called Gus. And it never got made.
WHAT DID THAT LEAD TO?
More jobs. My next big jump was I got hired by an executive at Warner Bros. I got hired to write the Louis Armstrong story. Then I got hired to write the Dance Theater Harlem story. So I started working.
I developed a reputation of being able to fix scripts so I did a lot of rewriting. I don’t know why I had a knack for that, maybe because I was trying to fix my own screenplay and save it.
YOU HAD A LOT OF SUCCESS WITH TV MOVIES, BUT THEY WENT AWAY, WHAT DID YOU DO THEN?
With the advent of 9/11 and reality TV, movies of the week went up in smoke, disappeared. I had to reinvent myself. It was really hard because I had to go from a very successful mid-six figure writer to nothing.
My agent kept telling me, “Write a pilot, write a pilot.” And I didn’t know anything about pilots. He kept encouraging me to write a pilot and I said, “No, leave me alone.”
And then a friend of mine had created a very successful animated series called the Rugrats. Her name is Arlene Klasky and I called her and said, “Look, I’m unemployed, I’m a writer and I don’t know anything about animation, but do you have any openings for writers?” Arlene, bless her heart, she gave me some work to help me get through that really, really rough patch. She paid me to develop 3 or 4 shows for her.
In the meantime, I wrote a pilot for television and my agent sent that pilot that I wrote to a showrunner and in two weeks I was getting interviewed for a new TV show called The Unit. David Mamet.
WHAT WAS THE BEST ADVICE YOU RECEIVED AS YOU WERE STARTING OUT?
The one thing I discovered was television was a writers’ medium, and film was the directors’ medium. I learned in a hurry that as a writer you have a lot more clout in television and you don’t have any clout in film.
WHAT ADVICE DO YOU HAVE TO ASPIRING WRITERS ?
So the thing that I would say now is one, be a great writer. Do all that you can to find out how good your writing is, don’t send your work out based on your grandmother read the script and liked it. Do the work.
Agents will find you. They will find you once you’re on their radar, but to get on their radar, it’s like a party that you’re not invited to. But that doesn’t mean your friend’s not invited. You can go to that party with a friend. You can go to that party because you know someone who’s catering the party. And once you get into the party, then absolutely you’re going to network and spread your wings and people are going to ask questions who you are.
You can find out more about Sterling Anderson and his new book, “Go To Script: Screenwriting Tips from a Pro” at sterlingandersonwriter.com.