In the Spotlight: Brett Scieszka
Screenwriting is about finding balance. You can win awards, get optioned, and even produced and still struggle to find work. During this journey, it is important to not just "write for the market" but to also make sure you are still expressing yourself through the art and craft of screenwriting. Brett has worked hard to that fine line and it has led him to some surprising successes. This is why I am excited to introduce you to him.
This is Brett Scieszka...
I did the film school thing for undergrad and had a blast, but couldn’t heed the advice of the majority of faculty to just focus on one aspect of the filmmaking process and just do the hell out of it. While I did do a lot of work in art direction and production design on student films, I found that having the control to handcraft my own little shorts with a skeleton crew of friends, and then reciprocate on their projects, was far more rewarding.
I got the idea for my first script a hundred years ago while sitting in the NYC unemployment office and kind of never looked back. You should’ve seen how ridiculously I broke every decent rule of screenwriting outside format on the first draft of that one! Writing became a fun thing to do with friends. “Hey, we’re gonna be sitting in this bar throwing back beers anyway, might as well do something productive with it.”
While I still pursue a variety of creative pursuits, mostly cartooning, illustration, short fiction, and even poetry, screenwriting has always been my rock. The idea of screenwriting as a true craft: something that is both artistic inspiration and workman-like technical medium is stubbornly lodged in my guts.
Q: How did you stumble upon screenwriting?
I was pretty much adrift after graduation because of my wide range of interests, but I always knew I loved creating characters and worlds. I ended up making comedy shorts and collaborated with lots of different friends on different types of projects, from starting a punk band to theatrical performance to the more traditional short-form cinema, but I always liked the control screenwriting gave me. I started writing with my best friend from school every Thursday night because our favorite bar had a ridiculous special on Guinness pints and that’s when I started to consider myself as a screenwriter first and foremost. I followed my wife out to Los Angeles because of her career and knew it was time to start writing on my own. Out here I learned that my solo work was not only rewarding but getting more professional recognition than anything I had done up to that point.
Q: Who/what inspired you into taking this path?
It might sound weird but I got my screenwriting voice mostly from reading noir and crime fiction. No question I’m a voracious consumer of films, and I read plenty of screenplays, but I tend to rely on an inner voice that’s almost always informed by hard-boiled pulp authors regardless of the genre I’m writing for. I want to lay a line down like those guys, and even if you’re writing a romantic comedy, that terseness is what screenwriting is all about. I would also be remiss not to mention my former professor Mark Arywitz. We weren’t particularly close in any way (I dropped my senior thesis film in his mailbox after not having seen or talked to him for two years), but in retrospect, his class was an enormous part of my development that would only grow with time. I remember Mark responding to a kid’s screenplay pitch that was based on personal experience: “real life is no excuse for bad drama.”
Q: Who was the first person who believed in you?
For me, it wasn’t a person, but my first recognition from a screenplay contest. It was, 2018 I think, and I was in Los Angeles job-hunting. On my way to an interview at some crappy restaurant in Silver Lake, I screened a call. I listened to the message at a red light and was thrilled to find that my script had been accepted in the Austin Film Festival screenplay contest. That script was VERY far-out and I did it on a lark: like a “one for me, one to sell” kinda thing, and when I realized the “one for me” script was what gained the most attention I felt seen.
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Q: When was the moment you knew you wanted to be a screenwriter?
It’s impossible to pinpoint the moment I wanted to be a professional screenwriter. I had been collaborating on screenwriting and making short-form content for so long that I always thought the two were interchangeable, but it was really moving to Los Angles to follow my wife’s career that made me buckle down. It’s like “look, I only have acquaintances out here. I’m not a dude like Jafar Panahi who can make a whole movie in his apartment. What am I actually good at?” Then it just became obvious. I can make a keyboard dance. I need to make that keyboard dance.
Q: How do you define success for yourself?
As you can imagine my life as of late has been very insular due to Covid. I have a three-year-old daughter and a loving partner that is working full-time while I’m working part-time. Our child is a constant joy and I’m thankful I’ve been a primary caretaker from the start all the way up until now. That’s a real success. In terms of screenwriting, I’m a little bit more humble. I just want to work. I just want to be in a writer’s room. I just want to collaborate. I’ll always have my passion projects. I’ll always have my ideas. But film and television is inherently a collaborative medium and real success to me looks like working alongside other people to get things done.
Q: Give us a typical day in your life:
Are you an Early Bird or a Night Owl?
-Night owl, which isn’t so easy now that I have a kid.
When do you get up?
-I sleep in as late as I can. See above response as to why… But honestly, left to my own devices I will gladly sleep in past noon.
What’s the first thing you do when you wake up?
-I’m a big-time news junkie so I’m catching up on all the headlines and then go right into the BBC’s daily podcast. The news is also a nice font of inspiration for future projects.
What’s for lunch?
-My wife’s a brilliant cook and I’m a fiend for leftovers. I don’t usually eat breakfast so lunch is more often than not a splendid continuation of the previous night’s meal. I am spoiled rotten.
What do you do at night?
-Exercise on a stationary bike for sanity and then it’s work time. I got a good two hours where I can write and cartoon and I rarely take it for granted.
Do you have a pre-bed ritual?
-Unfortunately, I’ve gotten into a REALLY bad habit where I’ve started listening to podcasts in bed before falling asleep. My pre-bed ritual is actively fighting this impulse and losing.
How do you define a successful day?
-It’s very easy for me: Have I done right by my wife? Have I done right by my kid? And did I do enough creative work today to soothe my savage soul? It’s always in a different order, but it is always those three questions, and frustratingly I do NOT always achieve this goal.
Q: What’s been the most important skill you've developed on your path to screenwriting?
Personal style. As previously mentioned, a lifetime of reading hard-boiled detective fiction and noir literature has informed my writing more than any movie onscreen, or any script I’ve read. This is coming from a movie nut who started writing criticism about every single picture I’ve seen since my late junior year of college (well over 2,800 features and shorts written about in my journals to date), but while cinema is my first love, I do find my screenwriting voice more informed by other mediums. It’s absolutely necessary to escape that silver screen on a regular basis.
Q: What’s been the greatest challenge in your writing so far?