Interview: Sean Collins-Smith
After widespread praise from major competitions, Sean Collins-Smith built enough momentum to sign with a top tier manager (Jewerl Ross, Silent R Management) and kickstart his career as, primarily, a TV writer. His ability to elevate genres and concepts, digging deep into a wide range of diverse characters, earned him top recognition with Script Pipeline–twice: in our genre-specific First Look Project and in the main TV Writing contest.
I’ve been fortunate enough to get a clearer portrait of you as a writer since your contest placing, and I see so much humility in everything you do. The way you digest feedback, your attitude and focus on your career, accepting both success and rejection in stride. . . . What gives you this clarity of purpose? Does anything ever derail it?
Oh man, that’s a lot to think about!
First things first–humility. Some people confuse humility with weakness, but I’m a firm believer in the opposite: people who are humble are often the most confident. I try to be quiet in defeat, and even quieter in victory. That’s not to say I don’t take pride in my successes, but I see every victory–whether it’s a “recommend” from an exec, placing in a contest, winning a fellowship–as two things.
First, it’s a means to an end, which for me, is to become a showrunner. Hopefully each victory is a step closer to achieving that goal, because by itself, winning this contest or that fellowship doesn’t really mean much to me.
Second, I see those wins as the culmination of many things, including luck. There was a baseball executive in the 1950s, Branch Rickey. He had a saying which I love: “Luck is the residue of design.” He believed that showing up and working hard was important, but that luck always played a part, whether big or small. I oftentimes think about how many variables had to come together each time I’ve placed or won something, or was blessed to become friends with an industry insider who admired my work. There’s a myth in America of The Self-Made Man, and I wish I could put the person who coined that phrase in a guillotine and ask them, point blank, “So no one ever, in your entire life, helped get you where you are right now?” I’d imagine they’d admit the truth, which is no one does it alone. No one.
Aside from humility, being even-keeled is critical. I’m incredibly fortunate to not suffer from depression or anxiety. I have friends and family who do, and frankly, I’m not certain if I’d have the strength to write if I did, because this whole game of acceptance and rejection is akin to a pendulum. You get a “yes” and it swings you one way emotionally; a “no” careens it another direction. I learned long ago that investing too much emotional energy into those affirmations/rejections is unhealthy and potentially disastrous.
Because of this, I never take my levelheaded nature for granted. I’m always striving to look at every critique from a purely objective point of view. I love that someone can tell me, “This story isn’t quite there yet,” and it’s not emotionally devastating for me. I remember thinking when I was in college that I would make a terrible telemarketer, because I had an awful fear of rejection. Well, here I am in Los Angeles, a town where every single person has been rejected countless times!
As for clarity of purpose. . . I think what I keep going back to is why I wanted to write in the first place–to prove to myself that my work can stand beside the works of my favorite TV writers. Joss Whedon, Vince Gilligan, Aaron Sorkin, Bryan Fuller, Matthew Weiner, David Simon–they’re all creators and showrunners who made me want to tell my own stories. Their unique voices shaped my own voice. Sometimes I’ll watch an episode of Mad Men or The West Wing and be blown away at the subtext or themes I missed when I’d viewed it three previous times.
Someone once told me the mark of great art is admiring it so much you wish you’d created it yourself. That’s been me far too often. Here’s hoping someone thinks that about my work someday.
Speaking of focus, we talk to writers all the time who move across oceans to pursue their ambitions in the industry. You didn’t cross an ocean (maybe a couple lakes), but you did cross the country–and had to make a few sacrifices and compromises to get here. When did you finally realize it was the right time? Did you have doubts?
The last 12 months have been, for lack of a better word, insane.
This time last year I was a journalism professor in Richmond, Virginia, in my sixth year of teaching. In terms of screenwriting, all I had was a couple “finalist” laurels from the Austin and Atlanta Film Festivals.
Then I won the ISA Fast-Track Fellowship in April, and everything changed. They flew me out to LA, and I met numerous industry insiders. In the weeks that followed, three separate managers expressed an interest in signing me. One of them, Jewerl Ross, had a single stipulation: move to Los Angeles, ASAP.
The decision, surprisingly, was not that difficult. I had a wonderful girlfriend (now wife!) who had pretty much prophesied this very moment. (Her words before I left for meetings in LA: “You’re coming back with a manager, and then we’re moving to Los Angeles.”) She’d moved around numerous times for her own career, and was willing to come out with me here. I had some money saved up, and thankfully didn’t have a house or car payment. Combine that with zero credit card debt, and it all seemed to add up to one of the few no-brainer decisions I’ve ever made in my life.
Tell us about the support you’ve received from your spouse and your family. It’s clear this has been a major component of your success thus far.
I actually took to Twitter to wax poetic about how critical support systems are to success. It’s not an exaggeration to say I wouldn’t be where I am today without the kindness, generosity and persistence of others. My father, from a very early age, instilled in me the importance of reading. To improve my comprehension, he’d have me read articles from The Washington Post and The New York Times out loud. When I was 12, he took me to a book fair at school and made me pick out something–anything–to read. He recommended a fairly new book series that had only three installments at that point: Harry Potter.
That moment kind of ignited a passion for reading and proved to be a gateway to literary classics like East of Eden and A Tale of Two Cities, which are among my favorites today. I also give my dad all the credit in the world for exposing me to films that first lit the spark in me to want to create something. The Sting, Alien, Jaws, Star Wars, Memento, A League of Their Own, Back to the Future–he really had a knack for picking things that swept me up and opened my mind to what entertainment could be, no matter the genre.
My grandfather, too, has given me so much. The car I brought out here to LA was a graduation gift from him. The laptop I use to write my screenplays, and the iPad I use to read others’, were both gifts from him from several years back. My mom let me live at home while I was earning both my bachelor’s and master’s degrees and while I was working. She also got me into TV shows, like Angel and The West Wing, that would eventually convince me to start writing my own things.
Because of all this familial influence and generosity, I was not only moved to start writing, I was able to save money up over the years for a “rainy day fund”–or, as fate would have it, a “move to Los Angeles without a job fund.”
And I can’t say enough about my wife. She’s the perfect partner. Ambitious, kind, intelligent, hardworking. For the moment, she’s the breadwinner for our little family of four (she’d kill me if I didn’t count our feline fur babes in the mix), and her willingness to work while I write, take meetings, and pursue my dreams is something I’ll be spending my whole life repaying.
You’ve won and placed in numerous other festivals and competitions, some before Script Pipeline, some after. What are your impressions across the board, and what kinds of opportunities did they create?
Every single competition has helped me in some way, big or small. And it’s kind of extraordinary how they start to stack on each other and eventually come full circle many months later. I think the key is to understand what each organization can offer and to take full advantage of those offerings.
For instance, Austin and Atlanta were perfect hotspots for meeting showrunners, writers, managers, agents, and producers. The first time I placed in Austin, in 2017, I had a chance encounter with Michael Green, a co-showrunner for American Gods and an Oscar nominee for Logan. He sat with my wife and I during a networking brunch and talked with us for more than an hour. And half of that wasn’t even movie talk! We talked about journalism, major world events, politics–important shit. Then he looks me dead in my eyes and says, “Ok, tell me about your script. I see you’re a finalist! Give me your pitch. Go.”
And it’s like. . . whoa. I’m literally pitching the guy who just wrote Blade Runner: 2049 my pilot script. At a brunch. At a film festival. The coolest thing? I spoke with him after I settled here in LA. I emailed him asking if we could chat about breaking into the industry, and he calls me up a week later and we spoke for half an hour. That’s a connection that never would’ve been made had it not been for Austin.
In Atlanta, I met a showrunner by the name of Wendy Calhoun. My wife and I got to join her for lunch after a panel, and Wendy was incredibly generous with the advice and wisdom she shared with me. Fast-forward several months to the 2018 Austin Film Festival, and she was a speaker there as well. That weekend I won an award for my one-hour pilot script, Lifers Anonymous, and guess who was in the audience? Wendy Calhoun. And then minutes later, I get a text message from her, one simple sentence: “Let’s get drinks and celebrate!” Talk about being in the right place at the right time!
The other big draw for festivals and competitions is the chance to interact with a plethora of like-minded writers who all want what you want: namely, to get staffed or get paid to write. In Austin, I met an amazing writer named Robert Attenweiler. His pilot, Liberty Falls, was a finalist in the one-hour AMC category, and that script was fucking incredible! I liked it so much, I asked him if I could forward it to a manager at Circle of Confusion. Similarly, at the Script Pipeline awards event, I met a fellow finalist by the name of Margarita Rozenbaoum. She’s super talented, and we’ve since become great friends. We regularly swap material when we’re looking for fast reads, and I’m certain she’ll be staffed.
But that’s kind of the name of the game with these things. Mingle with people, strengthen your professional and personal network, and keep in touch with the people you feel a genuine connection with. You never know what might come of it. If people think you’re a great writer and a great person, they have every reason in the world to help you achieve your goals.
You’re zeroed in on TV at the moment. What is it about the structure of writing for television that appeals to your sensibilities?
Wow, what a great question. You know, when I first became enamored by visual storytelling, it wasn’t because of television; it was film. As a young kid, a lot of animated classics spoke to me–The Jungle Book, The Lion King, Aladdin. As I grew older, I really took a liking to Steven Spielberg and James Cameron. I even went to film school.
But at some point, television became the thing. Joss Whedon’s work felt special. Buffy and Firefly were just so strange and funny and serious and unique. Oftentimes all at once. That was the moment I began noticing “Created by” during a program’s opening credits. The West Wing made me fall in love with fast-paced conversation. I wanted to talk like Josh and Sam and Toby, to be as smart and idealistic as them.
The LOST pilot aired the same week I began my senior year in high school, and that was formative. It felt like a film in terms of scope, but its characters could only be supported by the expansive nature of episodic television. Talking about that show at the lunch table with my friends was akin to the water cooler conversations people used to have in offices. I still remember when John Locke’s episode, Walkabout, aired. That was the moment when we all knew at school that this was something special.
Then, of course, came the Golden Age of TV: Breaking Bad, Mad Men, True Detective, The Leftovers, and numerous others, all favorites of mine. At some point, I can’t remember when, I decided, you know what? I’m going to write my own pilot script. I want to bring my own characters and my own propensity for seriousness and sarcasm and whimsy and dark comedic moments to the screen. What sealed the deal was actually a Christmas present from an old film school buddy. He’d worked at a literary agency in LA for a few years after graduating college, and when he came back to the east coast for the holiday, he brought me the pilot script for a sci-fi show called Beautiful People that never made air. It was the first pilot script I ever read, and it was exactly what I needed at that time.
I think what’s most appealing about writing (and watching!) television is the promise of spending a lot of time with these characters. I love the idea of crafting arcs and themes and people you can explore for 25, 50, 75 episodes. It’s a more accurate reflection of life than a movie, I think. We live our lives days, weeks, months at a time, much like we watch our favorite characters grow and change over those same days, weeks and months. Like television, life is a protracted, extended sensory experience. Characters learn, suffer losses, earn victories–it’s analogous to so many of the trials and tribulations of everyday life.
Writing a film, to me, is exceptionally daunting because you kind of have to introduce, explore, then wrap up all those things in two hours or less. In television, you can take your time. My favorite show for the last few years has been Better Call Saul. Talk about a show that takes its time. It’s a slow burn that demands your attention, then throws you into the fire at just the right moments.
The thread running through all your pilots: elevated concepts. It’s X, but it’s also Y and a little bit of Z. Dicey to execute, and you pull it off time and again. Is this intentional? When you think of a new premise, are you only satisfied once you’ve put a distinct enough twist on the idea?
Absolutely! I only feel comfortable writing a pilot if I feel like it’s unique in some way. That might seem obvious, but unsurprisingly, in this town, the name of the game is often, “Make sure it’s accessible and immediately recognizable.” Well, that sounds kind of boring to me. I have no problem with something being accessible, but should that be the number one goal? I think viewers are savvy enough to recognize the intentions and artistic goals of a product, even if it’s not as readily explicit as an exec might want.
I have two rules when I’m creating something. First, I’m writing something I’d want to watch. And, the truth is, I watch all sorts of things. I might binge episodes of Halt and Catch Fire, Adventure Time, and The X-Files all in the same week. So that means, thankfully, in writing something I’d want to watch, I’m not stuck in writing one particular genre or format.
Second, I try to find the twist that makes it stand out, both to me and the reader. When I was conceptualizing End of Life I knew I wanted to make something about a hitman, but I kept racking my brain trying to figure out how to make it unique. Finally, it occurred to me: what if he was a hitman you’d hire to kill yourself? It inverts the genre entirely. Now, the tension isn’t built in the question of, “Is this person going to escape this mad man?”, but rather, “Why does this person want to die? And how is Frank going to stage it, pull it off, and get away with it?”
Then I thought: well, his occupation can’t be the crux of the show. It’s a neat twist, but what’s the point of it all? So I made sure it’s about a complicated father/daughter dynamic, wrapped in the blood-soaked provocation of assisted suicide. It checks off the boxes an exec might want–who doesn’t know what a hitman is? And killing is an inherently tension-building device. Plus, nothing’s more accessible than the drama and hierarchy of human relationships.
My best writing friend in the world, a published author named Michael Leonberger, once told me I have a gift for creating fun, expanded sandboxes for my characters to play in. I love that! I have a pilot called The Secret Life of Inbred Mutants (which Michael helped me break the story for) that was a finalist in a few competitions. It’s a hybrid horror-comedy-political satire-teen angst show about a family of cannibals who run a business in the West Virginia woods. And their daughter wants nothing more than to leave the business forever and be a normal person.
Will it ever sell? Probably not. Is it a cool sample to use to get into the writers room of any strange, outlandish, animated comedy? Probably so. More than that, it’s different, and I can tell you right now, I’d watch the ever-loving shit out of that show. I can’t imagine writing something that’s cookie cutter. Why even bother?
You’re repped by a manager who we think is one of the best in town (no offense, other managers). How did you land on Jewerl Ross’ radar, and what advice can you pass on to unrepped writers searching for representation?
This is another part of the interview where I have to give others credit. The only reason I’m out here in LA, and the only reason Jewerl ever found me, is because of the ISA. I received an email from them saying I’d won, and that they were forwarding my work to all the “mentors” they’d selected for the fellowship, and Jewerl was on that list.
A few days later, I’m sitting in the theater watching Avengers: Infinity War and I get a phone call. My phone was on do not disturb (come on, I’m at a movie), so it went straight to voicemail, and when I checked the missed call later, I noticed it was a Los Angeles area code. I listen to the message, and it’s Jewerl Ross. He’s saying: “I’m hungry and desperate to sign you before the plane hits the ground in LA for your fellowship. Please call me back.”
. . .
What? This never happens. Like, I can tell you, without a shadow of a doubt, I knew almost nothing about the business, but one of the few things I did know was that just doesn’t happen. You don’t get a phone call from a manager who reps not one, but two Oscar winners, saying he’s desperate to sign you. Especially if you live all the way the hell out in Richmond, Virginia, and you haven’t even landed in Los Angeles yet? Haven’t even taken a meeting?
I’ll say it again: luck plays a huge part. I was lucky to hear about the ISA, and I applied. I was lucky that Silent R Management, Jewerl’s company, was on the mentorship list. I was lucky that Andrew Gerson, Jewerl’s assistant, loved Lifers Anonymous and recognized that Jewerl might love it, too.
As far as advice goes for landing a manager, the first and biggest thing I can say is always be writing. I actually won the ISA Fellowship with two scripts (the aforementioned Lifers Anonymous and End of Life). Funny enough, Jewerl had read End of Life from a previous competition and didn’t care for it, but he loved the other one. That’s a perfect microcosm of the industry in general. You just never know which script is going to be the one that puts you on someone’s radar, and since you don’t know, your best bet is to finish one, get feedback, polish it, and then move on to the next. I wrote End of Life in 2017, and since then I’ve written five more pilots. I’m constantly formulating, conceptualizing, pitching, and reading.
In addition to churning out content, I’d recommend identifying the top screenwriting contests and submitting to them, especially if you’re in a situation like I was in Richmond, VA. I had zero industry contacts in that city, and only one out in Los Angeles. Needless to say, I lacked access. So Script Pipeline, the ISA, Austin, Atlanta, Omaha, Screencraft, and WeScreenplay were my access.
Next, figure out what your own story is, because if you’re lucky enough to get in a room with managers and execs, they’ll want to know what makes you unique. I have a sneaking suspicion that a lot of people feel like I did–namely, you’re just a boring person who wants to write scripts. But everyone has life experience that sets them apart. Mine was working at a news station, especially working the midnight shift. For the longest time, that was simply my life. I didn’t find it unique or interesting. It was just a job. But I met a manager when I was in Austin the first time, and he told me, excitedly, “That’s your story, man! You’re like Jake Gyllenhaal in Nightcrawler!”
He was absolutely right about using that as a jumping off point. Execs’ eyes light up when I tell them that. It’s a conversation starter. Everyone has that, I think. I was recently a finalist in the Disney/ABC Writing Program, and one of our mentors told us someone received a staffing request because they were involved with a surfing club in high school. First of all, awesome. Second, would I have had the awareness to even mention something like that? That’s what I’m talking about. Identify key characteristics that add to your Life Story and help you stand apart from a rather intimidating crowd.
One last thing: build a network of writer friends, whether it’s on Twitter, in person, or in writers groups. The cliche about LA (and unfortunately it’s true) is that to get anywhere, you’ve got to know somebody who knows somebody. The good news? It doesn’t have to be “somebody that’s important.” It just has to be somebody who recognizes your talent and has some kind of connection, however obscure, to the industry.
Script Pipeline mentioned me in a Twitter thread when a showrunner sent out a tweet asking for “new, talented writers.” She was complaining that they always get sent the same writers and the same samples year after year. I was so thankful for that little bit of publicity on Script Pipeline’s part that I paid it forward and mentioned Margarita, the writer I referenced earlier, on the same Twitter thread. The irony of ironies is that I never got a meeting request, but she did! And that’s it in a nutshell: I’m nobody, but because Script Pipeline knew me, and I knew Margarita, she’s in the running to potentially be staffed on a show.
It’s everyone trying to help everybody else, and even if only one of you gets in, that’s a victory. The other person’s time will come, especially if they’ve built up some positive industry mojo.
I think some writers still have this impression of “oh, if I place in or win a major contest, I’ll find a manager, and then I’m set.” That’s. . . false, correct? Writers, no matter the level, can surely rely on execs who believe in them to push their material. But they have to remain committed to their own cause. What are those commitments you’ve made to yourself, outside of your support system? How do you stay creatively proactive?
Haha, yeah that’s definitely false! Getting a manager is an important step, and for some, it’s a long wait for a train that can take years to come. But once you do get a manager, you’re not supposed to stop grinding; if anything, you’ve got to work harder. The moment I signed with Jewerl, he sent me examples of pitch documents and told me to read them all so that I could write my own for Lifers Anonymous. It felt like being back in college again, like I had homework. Which was invigorating, because you’re in the hands of someone who can educate you on how to sell your ideas to the big people upstairs.
In terms of being committed to your own cause, you should definitely continue trying to get your name out there. I still regularly reach out to all the contacts I’ve made on the festival circuit. One of the directors for NBC’s Writers on the Verge program connected with me in 2017 when I was in Austin, and I still trade emails with her today. In fact, she was one of my first meetings when I got settled here in LA. Part of being proactive in this town is not just relying on your manager or your agent to set meetings, but setting your own. Which goes back to getting to know writers, execs and other industry insiders.
Sean Collins-Smith is a former midnight crime journalist and journalism professor who nurtures a lifelong obsession with Bruce Springsteen. He’s lived in Richmond, Virginia for 30 years until moving to Los Angeles in 2019 to pursue his career in writing. A graduate from Virginia Commonwealth University, Sean studied cinema and broadcast journalism.
He started entering teleplay contests in 2017, when he became a finalist in the Austin Film Festival. Since then, besides placing in two Script Pipeline TV writing competitions, Sean has been in a finalist in the Atlanta Film Festival, the WeScreenplay Diverse Voices Competition, and won the 2018 ISA Fast-Track Fellowship, which connected him to his eventual manager, Jewerl Ross of Silent R Management. Sean returned to the Austin Film Festival in October 2018, where he won the inaugural Barry Josephson Fellowship for his one-hour pilot, Lifers Anonymous.
Follow Sean: Twitter