April 6, 2015

SCA Family Stories: Nina Sadowsky

Writer, Producer, and Professor talks with SCA

Nina Sadowsky

In a diverse career that has included work as an entertainment lawyer, executive, producer, director, writer, author, and beloved USC professor, Nina Sadowsky recently added one more title to her resume: Mentor for the Humanitas New Voices program. SCA sat down with Nina recently to discuss her new role with Humanitas, her debut novel, and her ongoing love of writing and teaching.

Why don’t we start with Humanitas and the New Voices mentorship? Can you tell us a bit about the organization and how you got involved with them? Humanitas originally started in 1974 as a prizedesigned to recognize writers that were exploring the human condition. There is an executive director there named Cathleen Young whom I really admire who started the New Voices program. She’s a smart woman and I’m flattered to be part of her brain trust, someone whom Cathleen has reached out to at various points to bounce ideas off. I have enormous respect for what she's accomplished because the new voices program basically got networks to give a blind script commitment to brand new writers. So I've had this relationship with Cathleen and the organization for some time and she came to me this year and said, “I really want to find a way to use you.” So they paired me [as a mentor] with a young playwright named SJ Hodges and it has been very exciting. We’re developing an idea for a TV show based on a little-known time in American History. It’s been quite fascinating. We’ll see how the drafts come in, but we just had our first meeting and it was very invigorating for us both. I think that’s why I like teaching and mentoring, because I like seeing the potential in something and helping someone realize it. I feel like the best writing is always personal, and I want my work and the writers I work with to be authentic to a voice and not muddled with outside ideas. So my whole methodology comes down to asking questions and guiding from the answers. I interrogate myself too!

And it seems like you have very good relationships with all your students here at SCA as well. Oh, absolutely I would say that’s the case. You should ask them but… [Laughter]. No, I’m really proud of the relationships I’ve maintained with my students. People have come through my classes whom I’ve clicked with and I’ve gotten them representation and introductions that have led to jobs or they simply become friends. And I look at every experience that way. I think you have to look at your life not as what you’ve made but how you made it. I’m having a really fun time right now. In some ways, I’m having the most fun I’ve ever had professionally because I’ve achieved a level of success where I feel really confident and comfortable and I’m really excited about where my new book is going. Having that level of comfort makes it even more pleasurable to mentor or teach or just guide other people, because I’ve never been one of those people who believes there’s not enough room at the table for everybody. I believe there is.

The new book: you’re talking about Just Fall, right? Your new novel—first novel, actually. Yes. I felt like I was losing my love of the creative pitching and writing for film and television so I sat down and wrote this book in about a year, showed a draft to a few friends and in three weeks I had a literary agent and an auction. I sold it to the Ballantine Division at Random House and it’s going to be published early next year. We’ve already garnered some pretty high level film and television interest.

Wow. That’s excellent. It’s very exciting. In some ways, the book has been the most gratifying thing I’ve ever done because I wrote it as sort of a “Howl” of “I need to find my voice! I need to reclaim my love of writing!” And the fact that it had such a spectacular result has been incredibly gratifying because it was purely my voice. You know what development is like: it’s a lot of people telling you what’s wrong with what you have, and it’s very hard. It’s a process of trial and elimination and trying to take the note but be true to what you want and sometimes it gets so twisted up that nothing good comes of it.

You know, you’ve had a lot of success in many different positions. You started as an entertainment lawyer, then came to LA and had success as a producer and eventually as an executive. Then when that ended you say, “I want to get back to the creative,” and start selling all these screenplays and adaptations. And now this novel... You make it sound like such an easy process, and it doesn’t usually work that way. I’ll tell you what made it a little easier for me—and it is not easy by any means. But what I did have is a lot of friends I had made in the business. After leaving Signpost, I had written a feature script and decided I wanted to take some of my settlement money and direct the first couple scenes of it. When I called people to work on that with me, every person I called said yes and they worked for nothing or, if they weren’t available, found someone who worked for me for free. They all said, “You were the best, most responsive producer I ever worked for. So anything you need…” I was so grateful. And I had the same reaction in the agent and producer and executive community when I started writing. I could always get in the door. That didn’t mean I always got the deal or they liked what I did. But I could always get in the door because I had accumulated good will. I had done a lot of favors for people, and behaved well.  I’ve always believed in that. I have a former student who came to me with a TV idea that I thought was fantastic and I’ve been developing it with him and I’m sending it to one of the top comedy production companies because I pitched it for my friend there and she’s interested. I’ve done that sort of thing my entire career. I’ve always felt like if you believe in someone or something, it’s the right thing to do. And the payback is in the karma, not necessarily in a check or something immediate or negotiated.

So it sounds like, to expand on the old adage, it’s not just about whom you know, but also about how you treat those you know. There’s also the adage of, “be nice to everyone because whom you meet on the way up is whom you meet on the way down.” And it’s totally true. You never know where people are going, so it’s important to have good relationships because it’s just good business—it’s self-serving, too.

What other advice would you give to aspiring writers, both in terms of common mistakes writers make as writers as well as mistakes or things writers could do to improve as professionals?  That's a really good question. One is don't write what you think will sell. Don't write what you think is the vogue or don't write a horror movie because you think horror movies have a better chance [to sell]. Write from a place that's authentic to you. When I was an executive and reading scripts, I could always tell when there was an original voice and when it was someone who was just trying to hit a mark. The other thing is that you can’t teach talent, but you can teach craft. So learn craft. You need to be able to present yourself professionally. Because if as an executive you get a 150-page script, you just think, “this person doesn’t know what they’re doing.” So you have to learn professional standards and the act breaks and all that. I have students who say, “but Terrence Malick…” Yeah, but there’s only Terrence Malick.

And it’s not like he reached that level overnight. Exactly. You have to know the rules in order to break the rules. And you have to be authentic to yourself. If you’re going to sit down to write anything, ask yourself, “Why me?” Also, and I think this is the hardest thing but it’s really valuable: learn how to filter feedback. You can’t be reactive and just go, “Oh, that’s a note. Alright, I’ll go make that change.” You have to learn how to synthesize it and either make it yours or find a better solution than the one that’s proposed and be able to explain why it’s better. I have a friend who is a very successful writer who says, “Up until the point of production, the writer is the only one who has declared themselves, and everyone else justifies their existence by poking holes in what you’re doing.” And to some extent, that’s true. And when people are poking holes and you want to please them and get the movie made and get hired again, it’s easy to think, “Well, I’ll just comply.” I don’t think that serves you. You have to understand why the note was given and address that and sometimes fight for what you want instead of just complying.

You can’t just make a change for the sake of changing it. You have to understand how, if you’re going to make that change, how it impacts things and why it’s significant. Particularly when you’re talking about developing characters ideally out over five years. I have this cheat sheet that I do and that I use in my classes, which is a self interrogation sheet for writing where I’m essentially taking a step back and asking questions. But the other thing I do is extensive character bios. Ninety percent of it may not end up in the final draft, but I know who those people are, and I know if I make a change it’s going to require changing all these other things with it. But you also have to understand that the notes you’re getting are often not the real problem. Sometimes the real problem has nothing to do with your projects. I was once developing this female-driven family mystery film with a producer and studio, and at a certain point, the studio executive said to me, “I think we should look at Enemy of the State and Bourne Identity.” And I said, “Wait, those are male-driven action movies. They have nothing to do with…” But what she was really saying was that she was loosing her enthusiasm for this project, not that I should make the woman a man and have a lot of chase scenes. So you have to learn how to filter out what’s being said and what’s going on and also stay true to your initial vision.