October 6, 2015

SCA Family Stories: Sam Regnier

By Kaiti Williamson

SCA alum, Sam Regnier, is one of five people across the globe to win the 2015 Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting from the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. Regnier graduated from SCA in 2006 with a B.F.A. in Screenwriting, and has gone on to dedicate his time to writing. Regnier won the Nicholl Fellowship for his sports drama, Free Agent, which follows a female NBA executive for the Golden State Warriors who pursues the biggest free agent of her career while also managing a messy divorce and a complicated relationship with a younger colleague and his teenage sister. The rights to the script were pursued and acquired by CBS Films shortly after Regnier was announced as a finalist. 

Sam Regnier

Where did you find the inspiration for the project? Specifically, there were three points of inspiration for the script. The first was just that I always approach all my scripts from the character’s perspective and just start with a character that has a really interesting point of view, cause that just makes everything a lot easier. It makes it a lot easier to create sort of unique and intriguing content if you are looking at it through the eyes of a unique character, so the main character sort of came from people that I knew, women that I knew who were in their mid to late 30s, early 40s, who are very career driven. There’s sort of a generation of these women who in this spot for the first time and experiencing a lot of this interesting conflict between what they want their life to be about. That’s something that a lot of people that I knew were talking about and I thought it was a really interesting perspective. So that’s sort of the way it started, and I thought ‘okay, this character is really powerful and I want something that could be interesting that would throw the person off’ and the idea that they were in a relationship with a younger guy who also happened to be a coworker. So this person has built her life around her work, but then this personal interest comes into the work. So that was the first part of it. The second part of it that was interesting that I wasn’t sort of planning necessarily in terms of the script was that my wife and I had a daughter and that influenced me as I wrote the script. There’s a character that comes in in the middle that the central character actually has a conflict with which sort of represents my dealing with becoming a parent for the first time and what the challenges that presents are, so the second main character in the script is a 15-year-old girl and that is the emotional way that I was sort of working my way through that. The last piece of it was the NBA portion actually which is interesting because it’s the easiest part of the plot to explain but it’s actually the last part that came together and I was essentially writing the script but I had a lot of pieces to me that felt a little bit stark or a bit flat necessarily in terms of her job which was just a generic Wall Street job. I am extremely passionate about the NBA – I’m a little bit obsessed – and as I was watching a game I was struck by the similarities between the general manager of the Houston Rockets and the character I was writing, and that sort of clicked for me and I just started changing everything and the script really fell into place at that point.

How did your submission to the Nicholl Fellowship come about? I would say I’ve been interested in Nicholl for a long time. I think I first entered it when I was in college which was 10 years ago and I’ve always been interested in it. I’ve never had a piece of material which I thought was tailored well to what the Nicholl is about, I think Nicholl is very voice-driven and character-driven, and this was the first thing I had written where I thought ‘this could really work.’ So I had known about it, it’s something I had talked about with my classmates while we were in school and this idea that we could win either say the Nicholl or the Disney Fellowship were competitions that we talked about. So I’ve always known about it, but this is the first time I had a piece of material for it where I didn’t think it would win, but I knew that it was the right sort of script for the competition.

How did CBS come across your script and what was your reaction to hear they wanted to buy the rights? It was extremely exciting, obviously. They pursued the script very aggressively, very early on. They had read the logline once I became a finalist, before I won, so they had become very interested and that was something that really intrigued me, because its not necessarily a script that you would sell from a logline or that people would immediately say “that’s a high concept” or “that is an extremely commercial piece of material” so they were very aggressive about obtaining the script from my manager. They read it on a Friday and then by Saturday morning they said they had interest in buying it, so it was very quick. The deal itself took a little bit longer, but it was really exciting just to get that call on a Saturday morning when I’m babysitting my son and came completely out of the blue. I had just found out about being a finalist a few days before that so it was all in the same short period of time.

What do you think, other than simply experience, made this the right time for a script of yours to become what it is and get the attention it has now? The truth is that I knew when I graduated I wasn’t a good enough writer to win something like this or immediately make it and I think writing is difficult because it’s difficult to ever know how good you are at it, there’s no way of objectively knowing it. There’s no way of objectively knowing that you’re getting better at all, other than having say the fact that the work you put in and somewhat the accumulation of comments from other people. You can’t put stock in any individual person because that might make you think you’re much better or much worse than you actually are, so for me it was putting in a lot of hours and also being pretty critical of my own work and knowing that of the scripts I had read – scripts that won Nicholl or other types of scripts – that my work wasn’t there yet. When I wrote Free Agent – again, it still blows my mind it won a competition – but I had known that there was something there. I had known that it took me on an emotional journey and that was when I knew it could be something people could really connect with.

When you worked as an assistant at Paramount after college, was that for a writer? I graduated and I was terrified immediately. I had a placeholder job testing websites for Sony Pictures in their stock photography division, so nothing related to film and I got a call from someone I had interned for. When I was in college I did five unpaid internships and they varied in quality from completely worthless to extremely valuable. I interned at Morgan Creek Productions a few years before and I got a call from one of the people I had worked with who was being hired by Paramount in the development department and wanted to know if I would come over and be her assistant and I immediately said “yes,” because I didn’t have that much going on and I worked there for probably a year and three months or so, but it was really, really valuable. I had interned at two other studios before, but understanding the business side of the industry, being able to look at a script or the process from the opposite point of view and understand what the priorities are, because there’s a lot of negativity around the development process for screenwriters and it can be very frustrating. If you hear from famous screenwriters or successful screenwriters, they’re often very frustrated with how development works and colloquially its called “development hell,”  but when you look at a process from the other point of view you can see how priorities might differ on either side and really how a shifting point of view can affect the entire process. It can help you communicate with people on the other side, because you know what’s important to them, you know what are the possible hiccups that they could face. I find it valuable to know that they are trying to carve out sort of a consistent place and very solid job out of an industry that is extremely varied and unpredictable. So I really enjoyed my time there, but at some point after I’d been there – that sort of job can consume your life – I knew in my heart I wasn’t good enough a writer yet and I wasn’t writing enough. I left and spent a number of years tutoring, because that gave me the flexibility to do what I wanted. I was getting such a large number of connections and sort of an entry into the world which – once I was foolish – but I also thought that if I didn’t spend a couple thousand hours writing that I was never going to get to the place I need to be as a writer.

Throughout that time, would you write whenever it inspired you or was it something where you carved out the time to make sure you were doing your due diligence? Discipline is a skill, it’s not a talent, so it’s something you have to get better at and I think it’s something every writer struggles with, me included. When I was in school I tended to do a lot of my writing in the middle of the night, because it was due at 8 AM and I would start it at 10, 11, midnight sometimes and would write until about 4:30 AM, that was sort of a schedule I had where I would sit down with some chocolate-covered espresso beans and I would just knock out four or five hours and turn it in and pass out, and that wasn’t something that changed immediately. I did struggle when I first left my job with dealing with the amount of hours. I had a varied schedule, but I mostly worked at night so I had these daytime hours and I didn’t always use those to the best of my ability and when I didn’t, I was very honestly with myself about how disappointed I was that I procrastinated. I continued to try to do better and it worked out that by the end of the time I was tutoring – I tutored for four years I think – I was writing pretty consistently from 8 to 12 every morning and then I was tutoring or rewriting most of the day. I generally find that four hours is the maximum amount of writing I can get done in a day. After that, I’m mostly spent. But if you can get that done in a chunk, it makes everything a lot easier.

What is one of the most valuable pieces of information or lesson you learned while at SCA? The most valuable thing I learned at SCA was the enjoyment and the importance of collaboration. I had never written with other people or workshopped with other people before I got to USC and that was the part of school that I enjoyed the most by far. Being able to bring in our pages and read each others’ work and workshop it was incredibly valuable, partially because it was great to get notes on my own work, but mostly because I was able to provide notes on other peoples work. Evaluating your own work or editing your own work can be really difficult. You can be so close to it that you have no vision of it, you have no perspective. So when you’re constantly reading other peoples’ work and trying to fix it or provide valuable notes, you get a really good understanding of what works and what doesn’t work and you can see without emotion what mistakes people make and what great choices people make and I don’t think that there is any quicker path to understanding how to write or how to make a great movie than looking at other person’s work. You read work from other people who are very talented but are developing and struggling so you get great work that is flawed and you’re trying to turn it into something great, you try to help them and that’s really what helped me while I was at USC.

What has the review process been like since leaving the collaborative SCA community? I have a set group of readers. None of them are active screenwriters actually. They’re people I trust who are critical, who love movies and enjoy reading my work. I rely on them to let me know what’s working and what’s not. It can be difficult and I think that it’s always better to choose people who you are close to, but who are honest with you, because the combination of those things will get you the most honest feedback. You can trust that person, but know they aren’t just trying to tell you how great you are. You will know for the most part once you give it to someone if they’re not your friend though, you can tell pretty quickly if they’re excited about. People can tell me it’s good or they can say “I love this part,” but you really want to be there with them and see when they’re talking about it if there’s a real excitement when they talk about specifics in the script or not, because something can be good, but if it doesn’t excite people then it’s never going to make a difference – it’s never going to register on anybody’s radar when it goes out to the world.  

Do you find you are writing more feature films or are you hoping to get into television as well? I’ve tried my hand at both, but I mainly have focused on features for the last several years, but I would love to work in television, specifically because I really enjoy collaboration. As everybody can testify to, there are so many exciting and different places that you can take a TV series that you can’t necessarily take a film. The influence of genre on films can be a little stricter, I think. That being said, I focused on features when I started and I’m still that way because I tend to prefer the ability to tell completed stories. I guess I don’t have the patience. I’ve written pilots before, but it can be frustrating to write a pilot and know that it’s just essentially a teaser for the longer plot, instead of being able to really get to the end and figure out what the character arc is and being able to pay something off, and there’s a lot of satisfaction in that. Even though I’d love to work in television, my own work graduated toward features because the idea of telling a complete story really appealed to me.

Do you think there is anything else anyone pursuing a career in screenwriting should know before taking the plunge? I would say there are two things and they’re related. One is that the most important thing I didn’t learn at school and that took me a while to learn was patience. Partially patience in attaining success, but primarily patience in the way that I wrote and I often found myself rushing through drafts of scripts, because I was so focused on getting them to readers and selling something immediately and “making it” or making my first sale. You have to put in the hours and really be motivated to work hard and also be patient with your scripts and patient with your ideas, because you can hit the same wall three days in a row and feel like you’re not going anywhere but what you don’t realize is that you’re going to get there on the fourth day if you are diligent and patient. That includes finishing a draft and giving it some time and coming back to it. Some of the greatest mistakes I ever made were showing work when it wasn’t ready – it wasn’t ready on a character or plot level and it wasn’t ready on a very simple spell-check sort of error level, and that stuff is really important. Making sure that a piece of work is your best work before anyone sees it could not be more important, because you only get one read so you have to take the time and perfect something. The flip side of that, and this is the second part, is patience in choosing the right ideas. Often when I was writing I would rush from one project to the next, because I thought that I had all these ideas and I wanted to write all of them. People want you to have multiple pieces, but for the most part, nobody cares if you have 10 scripts. They want that one great script. A good idea isn’t enough, it has to be great. That doesn’t mean it has to be the highest concept idea in the world but it has to be something that you’re passionate about and you’re connected to. There’s no point in writing something because it would probably be a good movie. You have to do something you really connect with, and that can take time. It can take 50 hours of sitting at your computer trying to think of what to write, and that takes a lot of patience that I didn’t used to have – hopefully I have now, but we’ll see!