“You can reveal a lot about yourself through your writing. And that’s scary, but it’s also the thing that’s going to get you noticed.”
In an all things Launch Pad Pilots Competition edition of the Mini Series, our new series highlighting our candid interviews with working writers and filmmakers. In this series, we meet with passionate individuals who discuss their writing process and the insight that they’ve gained by working in the industry, who all got their start in the Tracking Board Launch Pad competitions.
TB contributing writer Miley Tunnecliffe sat down with Sean Costello, a Los Angeles-based screenwriter who won the 2014 Tracking Board Launch Pad Pilots Competition with his stellar script Paradise City. After his pilot won the first annual Launch Pad Pilots Competition, Sean quickly met with Brooklyn Weaver, who set up the project at Vertigo Entertainment. Costello later saw himself on the 2014 Young and Hungry List. Sean recently took some time out to chat about his journey to becoming a writer, hanging out with Hollywood screenwriting legends, and his exciting experience winning the Launch Pad screenwriting competition.
——————⇒ What was your journey into writing?
It probably all started when I was a kid watching TV shows with my dad. He would point at the screen and predict what would happen next; anticipating the twist or specific dialogue. I was like—How does my dad know what The Six Million Dollar Man is thinking? He’d just boast—Are you kidding? Anyone could write this stuff! Seeds were definitely planted.
After college I was living in New York, working in jobs I didn’t particularly like; mostly computer operations and accounting gigs. I always had this creative spirit inside of me so one day I enrolled in NYU taking night courses in their film program. It was when I got to the screenwriting classes; I knew right away this was something I was drawn to. Every class we would read scene pages out loud. I couldn’t wait. The teacher would eventually ask— Does anyone besides Sean have something to read?
I just really loved it but I was not what you would call confident. I remember one day after reading a very personal scene about the death of a friend, I got back to my desk and there was a note from a fellow student saying—You’re a very good writer, you have nothing to be nervous about… I haven’t thought about that in years. I’ve still got that note upstairs in my closet. It really meant a lot to me. I remember thinking—I can do this. It was a turning point.
I’d always dreamed of California, very cliché I know: the nobody who dreams of being a somebody. But that was me. So one day I got on an airplane and flew out on a one-way ticket. This was 1995. I’ve been here in Los Angeles 20 years this month.
A week after arriving I started working at the Writer’s Guild of America, working for screenwriters.
——————⇒ It must have been an amazing experience hanging out with these writers in the late 90s. What was that like?
SC: It was so fun. I met everybody. I was working in the Writer’s Guild Theatre, putting on panels and different screenings. My first week on the job they were doing a tribute to Billy Wilder. His wife asked me to carry this large portrait of him to their car and Billy came out and said—Why are you making this kid carry this portrait? Bring him to lunch with us.
So I’m walking down this street in Beverly Hills with this giant portrait of Billy Wilder—now Billy Wilder, his wife, Julius Epstein and Ernest Lehman are also with me. These are the guys who wrote The Sound of Music, West Side Story, and Casablanca. So I’m sitting at the table with three of the biggest writers of the 40s and 50s and they’re just asking about me. Wilder asked me to tell a joke. I think I said—A skeleton walks into a bar; he orders a beer… and a mop. There was silence, and then they started laughing.
It (Launch Pad) has had an amazing effect on my career. It opened a million doors. It gave me credibility.
I found myself in a lot of these situations. The head of the WGA at that time, Brian Walton, he looked out for me. He was my mentor in a lot of ways. I would also go to Sundance and other festivals and put on panels where I got to meet the young, hot, new writers. It was very exciting to be around these people I admired. But it kept me from writing because, for a second, I confused myself and though I was one of them, but I clearly wasn’t.
Now I had a great life working at the Writers Guild. For 5 years I was traveling, going to film festivals and doing some great stuff—but I wanted to make money. I was living beyond my means. This was around the time of the dot com boom, and I had friends making a lot of money on the internet. So I went to work at an internet company. I got to see a lot of interesting things around that time. We’d just got into streaming movies and I was learning how to acquire films for online distribution. I learned a lot from that period, but I wasn’t happy. My goal eventually was to make enough money so I could go back to writing.
When I hit my financial number I needed in 2007, I said to my wife, I’m going to try this writing thing. So I just left the internet space and that’s when I seriously began my writing journey. I started writing scripts, they were mostly awful. I probably have 20 scripts but I can probably only show three. They were all a learning experience.
——————⇒ Do you find that you’re your own harshest critic?
SC: Yeah I am. It’s a scary feeling writing alone and trying to figure it all out because you’re vulnerable. You’re putting yourself out there. You can reveal a lot about yourself through your writing. And that’s scary, but it’s also the thing that’s going to get you noticed.
——————⇒ Moving from New York to Hollywood, what did you learn about the industry here that was perhaps different from what you thought?
SC: There’s a saying in Hollywood that everyone quotes from the screenwriter, William Goldman—“Nobody knows anything.” People always quote that to make it sound like nobody knows anything, about anything, like Hollywood is entirely run by idiots. But what he was really saying in that quote is that nobody knows if a movie will be a hit or not. That’s all.
Most of the successful people I’ve met here are very smart, very driven. They didn’t get there by accident. They do a lot of hard work. That’s what I’ve found about most of the people in this industry. They’re very clever, very passionate and resilient. Resilience is a big thing. You’ve got to have that. Some of them are difficult but people all have their idiosyncrasies and little quirks.
——————⇒ The script that won you last year’s Launch Pad Pilots Contest was Paradise City. How did that story come about?
I had the idea for a long time—the core theme. I had written a script, at the time it was called Untitled Cocaine Dealer Script, or Snowman, Snow Blind—it always had some variation of that. I was probably in my third draft of it when a producer named Dan Scheinkman, who had got his hands on another one of my pilots, said he wanted to meet with me.
Dan and I got along well enough and I eventually passed him the Untitled Cocaine script. He liked it but he didn’t think it would work as it was. His thinking was that it’s set in present day, but cocaine felt like more of an 80s drug. I knew he was right. The 80s was a period I was obsessed with on many levels—it would work perfectly with these characters.
We got to talking about The Americans and Halt and Catch Fire—successful shows that are about the 80s. So I went off for about a month and took the existing characters and major relationships and rewrote the story to be set in that era. I just need to pick the right year.
Now the 80s is something I lived through and I remember quite vividly—from the excess, the cultural attitude – as well as Reagan and the War on Drugs; the death of John Belushi; the Wonderland “Four on the Floor” murders that happened in Laurel Canyon. It was all part of this darker, seedier side of LA. I took the elements and events I liked the most and picked out the year that I thought would be the most intriguing. That year was 1982.
Think about that year. It’s like watching an arson investigator examining a fire, there’s a moment where everything combustible in the room goes up in flames. It’s called a flash-over. And 1982 was a flash-over. You had this huge technology shift; VCRs and recordable videotapes were coming out. MTV, cable television, Thriller came out. These were game changers.
Everything was exploding. Corporations were buying up studios. Record labels were drawing together their distribution arms; and the money was just insane. There was this real sense of greed and excess. That was the moment where this story needs to take place. With a sense of no tomorrow, there’s only today.
They say write what you know, but I say write what fascinates you.
I wrote from the heart. My darkest moments now became an asset.
I felt I had a very strong draft. I found my voice. Dan was a great asset; encouraging me and giving notes. This was the script that came out so easy but I wanted to get a feel for how it was going to be received by others. I slipped it into The Tracking Board Contest. I didn’t even tell my manager, which I know you’re not supposed to do, but when I saw the contest I thought—I want to see how this does. I sent it before I talked myself out of it.
They say write what you know, but I say write what fascinates you. And everything in that script was something that I had witnessed or lived through. Winning the Tracking Board contest is what ignited it and helped to get it where it is now, because it could have easily died, like any one of my other 19 scripts. (Laughter)
——————⇒ What were your expectations when you entered Launch Pad?
What’s great is I really didn’t have any expectations. I’ve been a member of the Tracking Board. I’d met a lot of great people through the forums but I didn’t have an inside connection at the Tracking Board. I submitted the script without a logline just so the reader would have to go—what is this But one thing I knew, I had better make that first page the best page I can. That’s the one big thing that I’ve learned. I’ve been to many panels and I’ve talked to thousands of writers in my lifetime. It’s got to be compelling and you’ve got to suck them in right on the first page.
When I won, I almost wasn’t ready for what came afterwards. Every one told me contests mean nothing. But they mean nothing—except for when you win or you place. (Laughter)
It was an awesome experience and a really fun night when I got the news—holy shit, I won this thing. One by one my email box started filling up with messages from friends and strangers saying congratulations. There is this genuine camaraderie and support out there in this network of writers. Overall it’s this really amazingly positive experience.
Right away managers, agents, producers, all sorts of people are reaching out to you. I was getting these phone calls and wondering how they got my phone number.
It’s this really amazingly positive experience. Right away managers, agents, producers, all sorts of people are reaching out to you.
When I entered and won this contest, I already had a manager (Bethany Stirdivant) and I already had a producer (Dan Scheinkman) involved with the project. But now I also had this great experience with Brooklyn Weaver (Energy Entertainment).
He called me on a Sunday and started talking to me about Paradise City. He genuinely loved the script. He knew I had reps but he wasn’t looking to rep me, he wanted to get involved on a producer level.
Brooklyn was great because he wanted to work with Dan on the project. Had I won as a writer with no attachments, I think it would have been an excellent opportunity to get repped and get people on the project. So in an odd way I didn’t get to take full advantage of what the Launch Pad Competition offers because I almost didn’t need it at that point, but it has had an amazing effect on my career. It opened a million doors. It gave me real credibility, and it certainly gave me some credibility with my wife and my son. (Laughter)
——————⇒ And that’s the most important thing!
SC: It is! My son’s ten. He talks like he’s in the industry. If you want to know if something works or doesn’t, run the concept past a ten year old. If they understand it, then you know you’re on to something. Because they will not bullshit you.
——————⇒ So you now have Energy and Vertigo Entertainment attached as producers developing the project?
SC: Yes, Vertigo did The Departed, Bates Motel and many other projects. Energy, Brooklyn’s company, has done Run All Night, Out of the Furnace and also the new Spielberg series, Extant. The creator of Extant, Micky Fisher, was a writer whom I think Brooklyn found in another contest. And stories like that, give a guy like me hope. It’s a longshot; but it happens.
Life is about luck as well, there’s a lot of luck involved, certainly in my life there is. But you still have to do the work. Paradise City was something I worked very hard on. Some stories take you a lifetime to tell. My manager, Bethany Stirdivant — and producer Dan Scheinkman, have both worked hard on the project. Brooklyn also came in with some great notes and started opening other doors for us immediately.
It all took off from the moment I won Tracking Board. The Launch Pad was a great experience for me.
Contributor Miley Tunnecliffe is -based actress and screenwriter, known for the short films “Love in a Disabled Toilet,” “Bye Bye Lulu,” and “Barnesy’s Numbers.” Her comedic road-trip script, “Run Santos Run,” recently placed in the top 5% of 7500 unproduced screenplays entered in 2014’s Academy Nicholl Fellowships. She is also a co-head of Red Milestone Productions, which is based in Western Australia.
Follow Miley on Twitter: @mileytunn