Winner of the Script Pipeline TV Writing Competition with his drama Powerhouse, Justin D. James has stacked a bevy of lifelong experiences and used them as motivational fuel to move forward as a film and TV writer. His pilot, submitted to one of the most competitive seasons in Script Pipeline history, rose to the top thanks to a prodigious and intimate sense of character development and overall storytelling. After Justin’s win in 2018, he signed with management, landed major writing assignments, and has seen his young career begin to rise.
Powerhouse is built around a fairly standard premise that you ran with and made deeply compelling (and quite fun to read). Always curious how a writer gets so motivated to pursue an idea. Why this concept?
I’ve always been fascinated with stories that pull back the curtain on careers that appear mundane from the outside but are rife with entertainment on the inside. Real estate in central Florida hits that out of the park. The sunshine state is bursting with shady characters, and realtors have an all-access pass into a weirdo wonderland, unlike anything you can imagine. My mom was held at gunpoint on her first day as a realtor. By the end of her first week, she stumbled upon a body buried in a backyard. I quickly learned that no one talks about the ugly side of real estate. If the husbands and families of these realtors really knew how dangerous the job was, they’d never let them leave the house.
I became obsessed with tracking down these terrifying tales. I interviewed upwards of 50 realtors, all while documenting my mom’s crazy shenanigans. Situations that are so bizarre and frightening that they could only happen in Florida. People have tried to write shows around real estate in the past, but none have made it to air. That’s because they aren’t telling the best version of the story. No one wants to see a scripted version of House Hunters. There’s a unique subculture of Florida realtors that have experienced things other realtors in this country couldn’t imagine. I’ve heard from multiple producers that Powerhouse feels too outlandish to be real, and I always chuckle because I have 15 years of journals filled with true stories far more surreal and seedy than anything that’s currently on the page.
My mom has survived the craziest level of shit a writer can imagine and yet, still, was home every night for dinner. I owe it to her to tell these stories, and I’ll keep pounding the pavement until I get the opportunity.
After your win, you’ve been so gracious and grounded–the marks of someone who understands how many hills a writer needs to climb. You shared with us some of your own backstory, and it’s deeply inspiring. Loaded request, but: tell us about that road and why in the world you didn’t hang up writing and move on to something else?
(I’m not sure how to tell this story without telling the whole thing. . . .)
Doing something else, anything else, was always the easier option. As someone who grew up with dyslexia and dysgraphia, writing–while a passion–has always been incredibly challenging. You learn from an early age that what looks perfect to you most likely has a million tiny errors. And that doubt becomes a theme in your life. You stop trusting what you see and wait for others to tell you how it really is. This is a hill I climb every time I open my laptop. And it’s a hill I will continue to climb every day because it’s the only way I know how to feed the creative fire that’s been in me since I was a kid.
The same creative fire that gave me the guts to leave school and move to LA when I was 19. I didn’t know a single person. I had no money, no connections, and no plan. I lived out of my car for the first few weeks until I was able to talk my way into a PA position working the Oscars. That led to a string of production gigs that helped me keep the lights on while I wrote specs and stalked every rep in town. Begging reps to notice me was a full-time job. I emailed and called upwards of ten reps a day, every day, for 10 years. I had various shades of rejection for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and it took a toll, but not enough to ever make me quit. A few months living in LA, I spotted an up-and-coming actor at an LA Fitness in the valley. I went out on a limb and pitched him a feature. We were the same age, so I made up a movie that I’d wanna be in if I was him and afterward he asked to read the script. That night, I went home and wrote it. I didn’t sleep. The next day I gave it to him. A few days later, his manager called, and for six months things looked good. Too good. Unfortunately, the project never got off the ground. It was my first Hollywood heartbreak.
Over the next seven years, there were a lot of instances similar to that one. Situations that were absolute dream scenarios that got all the way to the top before crashing and going nowhere. It became a pattern. My friends started calling me the “almost kid.” That’s when I decided to turn to TV. I needed something new, and honestly, something that didn’t take so long to write. I figured that would make the heartbreak hurt a little less if the project didn’t work out.
In 2014, life started to look really good. My wife’s career was skyrocketing, we had an amazing apartment, and I had just begun developing a passion project of mine with an A-list producer when a family health crisis sent my wife and me back to the East Coast to help care for my mother-in-law while she was in the ICU. My wife and I have been together since we were teenagers, so putting everything on pause to help care for her mom, who in many ways has been a second mom to me, was a no-brainer. Unfortunately, what was meant to be a two-month hiatus turned into a three-year detour. Thankfully, she fully recovered and is doing better than ever. Our savings account, however, wasn’t as lucky. I’ll never forget the night we were sleeping on a mattress on the floor of an old hair salon, after spending the day sweeping pecan shells off the floor of my in-law’s pecan factory. It was raining, and the roof was leaking, and I got a Facebook reminder of the time I was on the Emmys with Ryan Seacrest. I had been a PA and Ryan was the host that year. We hit it off, and one of the producers arranged for us to have a skit during the show. I got to sit in the audience and watch the entire award ceremony. My friends and family went ballistic. It was incredible and inspiring, and the future was bright. As I looked at that picture of Ryan and I, I barely recognized that kid. I was depressed and embarrassed, and for the first time in my life, I felt too far away from the dream I always believed was just out of arm’s reach. I had officially hit a spiritual rock bottom.
Thankfully, I’m blessed with a remarkably strong and supportive wife. A wife who made it very difficult for me to wallow in any negative space for long. So, despite the growing financial and geographical hurdle, I continued pursuing my dream from afar, even when that meant swallowing my pride and restarting from the very bottom of the production ladder. With 2,000 miles between me and the industry and no money to fly to the west coast, I had to seek alternative methods to get my material noticed.
In 2017 one of my pilots landed at the top of The Black List, where it stayed at number one for an unprecedented 17 weeks, capturing the attention of Kelly Fremon Craig, Reese Witherspoon, and more. But I didn’t have anyone to help guide me, so the momentum faded, and suddenly it was back to square one.
In 2018, while working 19 hour days as a PA for an East Coast reality show, I decided on a whim to enter my first screenwriting contest. With a sobering $132 in my bank account, I coughed up the $60 entry fee and prayed for a miracle.
On July 29th, 2018, that miracle came true when I was announced the winner of Script Pipeline’s 2018 TV Writing Contest. By early August, I was jumping from one corner office to the next, meeting with top producers and agents. Within weeks I found himself writing for one of the biggest producers in town and signed with the manager of my dreams. Between my wife and myself, I think we cried tears of gratitude for a month straight. Heck, I’m getting emotional just writing this. There’s so much joy right now. So much to appreciate, to be thankful for. I’ve made more money in the last three months than I’ve made in the last three years. I can finally give my wife the life I’ve promised her since we were teenagers. But it took me 13 incredibly humbling years of rejection to get here. And the more things that went wrong, the more I knew things would go right on the other side. I’ve always looked at obstacles as an excuse, and trust me, I’ve had them all. Health, family, age, financial, geographical. But the truth is those obstacles only hold as much weight as you allow them to. And for a long time, I let them weigh me down. I became comfortable with the victim narrative of my life. When I changed that mentality, my life changed. And it changed very quickly.
Sometimes the bad things in life are just there to put us on the path to the best things in life. My grandma always used to say “you can’t connect the dots looking forward, you can only connect them looking backward.” And she was right. I wouldn’t change a thing.
You’re actively writing on staff for a series. What were some of the things you weren’t expecting when first acclimating to that new role?
I wasn’t expecting everyone to be so nice, that was a wonderful surprise. Or that I’d be expected to write entire episodes in three days. And outlines. Which I now know I’m terrible at. From day one, this journey has been such a unique experience. Nothing has been normal.
The first day, I was terrified. I felt alone and green, and I had a full panic attack on the drive to MGM. I didn’t have a manager at the time, so I had no one to help paint a picture of what I was walking into. I was hired as one of three writers to write a 12-episode second season of an upcoming MGM and Will Packer series that had been given a two-season order. While the three of us were writing season two, another writer was writing season one. As we started turning scripts in, I noticed that only my scripts were coming back without notes, while the others had dozens. I was terrified. The worrier in me instantly assumed my scripts were trash and not even the network knew how to save them.
Over the next few weeks, the team shrunk from 4 writers to two writers, to one. Suddenly, I was a lone wolf. And again, terrified. Everyone behind the scenes was so happy with my work in season two that they wanted to scrap the scripts from season one and have me do page-one rewrites. They wrote up a new contract, and suddenly I had complete creative freedom. They put all their trust in me. It’s been surreal and completely unorthodox. I went into this job thinking I’d be a staff writer and now I’m walking out of it as the sole writer, so that’s a little scary. And not something I ever could have expected.
There are so many intangibles in a good script that are difficult, at best, to pinpoint and relay to another writer “do this, and you’ll be fine.” Powerhouse is packed with those types of key pieces–structure and timing of where to end scenes, nuance between characters, leaving breadcrumbs throughout the plot to foreshadow the future of the series. . . . This is necessary for all writers to grasp, right? The days of writing a “good” pilot or screenplay without many layers, thematically and otherwise, doesn’t cut it as much anymore? How does one make a script “bigger” and more grandiose, with regards to its impact on the reader?
I think it’s difficult to gauge what will impact a reader. Sometimes going bigger–which comes naturally to me–might turn off a portion of readers. Complex characters and digestible concepts are the two biggies. Once I have those in place, I like to map out a full season of stories. I have to know the concept has legs before I can get excited. Because I flesh out so many future episodes, I end up cramming a lot of plot into my pilots, and that can make them incredibly dense. On the upside, knowing future scenarios also gives me the opportunity to add more layers to my characters that will impact those future moments. It also makes sprinkling breadcrumbs a lot easier. Producers love breadcrumbs.
When it comes to the actual writing–after I have fully developed my characters–I spend a lot of time thinking about pace. I’ll probably get a lot of flack for this, but I think pace is just as important as character. Both deserve a lot of time and respect. I’m a writer who loves visual storytelling. I tend to approach writing from a director’s point of view. You can have the most complex and intriguing characters in the world, but if your scene has no movement and runs a page too long, the audience and the reader are going to feel that. I always try to direct and edit every scene I write in my head before and after I’ve written it. I know where the camera is, how it moves, what it reveals–I act it out, I time it–and I try to make sure you can feel that on the page. Strive to have to compelling characters who have room to breathe and a page-turner at the same time.
I spend a lot of time on my action lines. Probably too much time. I try to keep them as short and descriptive as possible and I like to pepper them with personality. A personality that’s true to the spirit of the story and characters. It’s important to me that the reader sees the scene exactly the way I see it in my head. But it can be tricky. You don’t want the director or actor to feel like you’re stepping on their toes. Having great dialog and cool characters isn’t enough to get an unknown writer noticed anymore. Readers are flipping through dozens of scripts a day. My goal, always, is to make readers feel like they’re watching your show instead of just reading it.
Born and raised in central Florida, Justin D. James spent his childhood running around barefoot with a video camera glued to his hand.
With a lifelong dream of following in Steven Spielberg’s footsteps, Justin set out for the west coast at nineteen, where he spent the first few months bouncing between PA gigs and living out of his car. Eventually, he worked his way up the production ladder, while squeezing in late night writing sessions in pursuit of his ultimate dream.
In 2018, while working nineteen hour days as a PA for an east coast reality show, he decided on a whim to enter his first screenwriting contest. With a sobering $132 in his bank account, he coughed up the $60 admissions fee and prayed for a miracle. On July 29th, that miracle came true when he was announced the winner of Script Pipeline’s 2018 TV Writing Contest. By early August, he was jumping from one corner office to the next, meeting with top producers and agents.
With a second chance at his dream, Justin aims to write original television pilots with a twisty mix of dark comedy and complex drama. As one studio exec described his writing, “He’s like the lovechild of Shonda Rhimes and Ryan Murphy, raised by Carl Hiaasen.” A comparison he’s quite happy with.
Follow Justin: Twitter