Screenwriters P.K. Simonds and Jason Cahill Bring Hollywood To Woods Hole
By: Christopher Kazarian
Somewhere amid the vast concrete jungle that is Los Angeles, a former colleague of screenwriter P.K. Simonds is repeating the phrase “steady pressure.”
The term was passed down to Mr. Simonds by his mother-in-law. Mr. Simonds, the former executive producer of “Ghost Whisperer,” now calls Woods Hole his home with his wife, Beth Colt.
“I’ve spread it and now the saying is all over Hollywood,” he said, half-jokingly. “It is one of my favorite sayings. Rome wasn’t built in a day. Just apply steady pressure to the problem and obstacles will eventually fall down. Then there will be new obstacles and then you’ll apply steady pressure to that.”
Inside a modest classroom at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution’s Smith Laboratory on Sunday morning Mr. Simonds shared this kernel of wisdom with nine aspiring screenwriters, at least four of whom live on the Cape.
Though they were far from the glitz and glamour of Hollywood, Mr. Simonds and longtime friend and fellow screenwriter Jason Cahill provided a road map for how to navigate the entertainment industry so that perhaps, one day, those in attendance may find themselves on the other side of the fence.
To Mr. Cahill, who grew up in Gloucester, it was an invaluable opportunity he never had when, at the age of 28, he packed his bags and said good-bye to Boston, making the trek out West with only his wife and dreams of being a paid television writer.
“Stuff like this didn’t exist when I was coming up,” he said afterward. “Hollywood to me seemed very far away. I’m a huge Celtics fan so when you think of LA, you think of the Lakers and I hate the Lakers. I still hate the Lakers. I also had two misconceptions of LA. I thought it was only Hollywood and that was wrong. And I thought that everyone in Hollywood was stupid and shallow, and well, that was partly wrong.”
Over the course of two days, the pair of veteran screenwriters broke down such misconceptions for people like Bronwen Prosser of Woods Hole. “To me this was an unknown,” she said at the end of the weekend. “They made this entirely understandable, especially to someone like me who has never been to LA and grew up without a television.”
Tips for breaking into the industry
This is the second year the symposium has been held in Falmouth in association with the Woods Hole Film Festival. Its goal is twofold: provide not only hope that a television career is possible, but also offer practical advice to making that goal a reality.
And for those in attendance, Mr. Simonds said, there has never been a better time to explore such a possibility with the marketplace so splintered and more new shows finding a home on television.
Among the more simple offerings the pair put forth was to be nice to everybody along the way. “Small kindness does make a difference,” Mr. Simonds said.
On the craft, Mr. Cahill recommended aspiring writers watch a television show they like and for each scene take notes, forming a basic outline of the major plot points. “Pretty soon the underlying structure of TV becomes apparent to you,” he said. “That, to me, brought it inside me. It is so simple, and honestly, I think it is better than going to film school and buying film books.”
Of course, the most important part is the writing. Mr. Cahill urged the students to write a spec script of a show they like while Mr. Simonds recommended they write and rewrite constantly to hone their skills.
PK Simonds and Jason Cahill: Tips for Aspiring Screenwriters
Be nice to everyone: You never know who can help you in the business
Keep writing (and rewriting)
Dialogue is key. "If you can't write dialogue you're not going to write for TV." - Jason Cahill
Debating on whether to write a spec script of "Mad Men" or "Downtown Abbey"? "Don't ask that question," says PK Simonds. "Write them all."
"It should never be about one project or one idea. You're trying to build your career." PK Simonds
Admittedly, Mr. Simonds said, that is easier said than done. “I’m someone who is a procrastinator,” he said. “I’m so terrified at the beginning of every day, but by the time I get done it feels good and I feel I’ve solved some problems. Then the next morning you look at the script and you get a sinking feeling.”
“Oddly it is the opposite of what happens in your marriage,” Mr. Cahill joked. “Every morning you wake up and say ‘I can’t believe I’m so lucky.’ With a script it is the opposite.”
Despite that internal pressure, Mr. Simonds said, the script can once again turn into “a silk purse,” but only if “you have the courage to face it and the confidence to know you are smart enough that you will solve those problems.”
The less tangible, but more inspirational, aspect was provided by the two screenwriters sitting in the front of the room. How they broke into the business was a confluence of talent, luck and hard work.
Destined to be a writer (with the help of a car wash)
Mr. Cahill said he was always destined to be a writer, pointing out the benefit of knowing this at an early age. “It removes a lot of doubt from your life,” he said.
With him, a Los Angeles car wash would prove to play a seminal role in landing his first major job in the industry.
When he eventually moved to LA, he had little to any contacts in the industry. But “my godmother’s next-door neighbor had a daughter who worked in publicity on the feature side,” who happened to pass along one of his scripts to a friend who worked as a low-level reader at NBC.
“Through a quirk of fate my script was the only one he had brought when he went into the car wash and in Los Angeles a car wash is an elaborate ritual. It is like a 45-minute to an hour thing where they really take care of the car during which he had time to read the script,” he said.
So the next day that NBC staffer passed Mr. Cahill’s spec script to an agent, who then read it over the weekend. “He called me on Monday and signed me on Tuesday,” Mr. Cahill said. “It is really hard to get an agent. There is no easy way to do it.”
His first show was called “Two,” a Canadian drama that was overseen by executive producer David Levinson. “He was this avuncular, tough-talking Jewish 68-year-old,” Mr. Cahill said. “He had a 30- to 40-year run in television and had a great taste in talent.”
After “Two” ended its run, Mr. Cahill benefited by having a good recommendation from Mr. Levinson while interviewing for staff shows.
By that time, Mr. Cahill had developed some buzz and landed on “ER” when producer John Wells was unable to hire another writer on his short list. “Luck played a huge role in this,” Mr. Cahill said. “I knew nothing about television and was a staff writer for one of the greatest shows of all time. It was like a dream though I don’t think I was a particularly good staff writer who contributed enough in the room.”
By the end of the first season, he was let go. “That season represented an incredible high and a crushing low,” he said.
His next show would be the HBO drama “Sopranos,” detailing the fictional life of New Jersey mob boss Tony Soprano. Though that stint also ended badly, Mr. Cahill said, he benefited from working on a critically acclaimed award-winning show by earning three development deals—“a wonderful relic” of the industry—over a seven-year period in which he was paid by studios to create original content while also assisting current shows as a consulting producer.
“I found out I was much better coming on and helping a staff and didn’t feel the pressure of being a staff writer because you can get fired at any time,” Mr. Cahill said.
All of this, he said “would not have happened except for a car wash. I’m always aware of the role luck played.”
Screenwriting: more than just luck
Mr. Simonds disagreed with his friend, saying Mr. Cahill’s circumstances may never have played out in the same way, but he was prepared for the opportunity that presented itself. “Something worth emphasizing is that luck is when opportunity meets ability,” he said. “If you write great material it will find its way into the right hands and create opportunity for you.”
In Mr. Simonds’s case, he began as an assistant to producer Mark Gordon, often responsible for reading scripts and providing a recommendation to his boss. “I was reading all these scripts, and with some exceptions, I realized I can do this,” he said.
He set off to write an original script for a series that a friend, and actor, was on called “Hooperman,” which starred John Ritter. He then was given a list of the younger agents in Los Angeles, sending close to two dozen letters, and he received two replies.
Do I Have To Move to Los Angeles?
"I was ready to be poor, but that was okay. We were poor in Boston so being poor in LA was a step up because you can go to the beach and it is 65 degrees. It is just a fantastic, greaty city to be poor in." Jason Cahill
While LA is the hub of the industry, Beth Colt said today with the advent of YouTube it has become easier to make a name for oneself online.
A prime example is Felicia Day who was long told she did not have the look for television. So she took to the Internet, creating her own web series called "The Guild" focused around the video game world which became wildly popular.
The geographically non-specificity of the Internet makes it ripe for aspiring screenwriters, Simonds said.
Of those one of the agents liked the script and asked for another sample.
So Mr. Simonds wrote a spec script of “The Equalizer,” a crime drama featuring private detective Robert McCall.
That led to his signing with an agent and he started interviewing with showrunners to be staffed on a television show. During those interviews, he said, the producers were interested in what he knew about storytelling and how he would fit in the writers room.
His first job was on “Beauty and the Beast,” an assignment he earned after one of the creative execs liked one of his story pitches. He was asked to write that script, admitting it was “an arduous, grueling process with a lot of ups and downs. I was very humbled in the room and working with really, really talented writers,” among whom was George R.R. Martin (“Game of Thrones”) as well as Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa (”Homeland”).
Still he recalled a phone message he received from show creator Ron Koslow after submitting his first draft. “I’ll never forget; I was heading back East for somebody’s birthday, I think, and I’m in an airport and I called my answering machine and Ron Koslow tells me how much he liked my first draft and it was one of the best scripts he ever read,” Mr. Simonds said. “I was 80,000 miles high, but then I came home to the reality of television, which is the rewrite.”
Mr. Simonds has built his resume since that time to expand into producing and overseeing a staff of writers. Among his credits are “Party of Five” and “Ghost Whisperer.”
A joy in helping their fellow screenwriters
While they have received success in the industry, the pair expressed genuine enthusiasm for helping those who are at a similar place they once were. “It is fun to meet people at the beginning of their careers,” Mr. Simonds said.
Among those was Jill E. Erickson, the reference librarian at the Falmouth Public Library. As to why she signed up, she said, “I’ve spent 30 years working in libraries and thought a one-hour network drama situated in a library” is perfect for television. “I’m sitting on so many stories it seems to me there could be so many weeks spent in a library that it would make for a great series.”
This is the second year Mary Conroy of Quincy has attended the symposium. As to why she returned, she said, it was the wealth of information provided by Hollywood insiders. “I’ll keep coming back until PK invites me to speak with him,” she said.
“You wouldn’t get this kind of workshop in Hollywood,” Judith Laster, executive director of the Woods Hole Film Festival, said. “They are willing to come here and share a practical perspective on how to get into the TV industry and they do it from all ends of the spectrum.”
As to why he is so willing to share his insight, Mr. Simonds said, “You always hope to do things that make a difference in people’s lives. And you realize you have expertise in an area where people have a lot of interest and a lot of curiosity and maybe some aspirations so this is an opportunity to help them.”
TV WRITERS SYMPOSIUM (2011)
Leave a Reply
In order to comment you need to be logged in.