Can a Gay Latino Find Success as a Screenwriter? (Hint: Yes!)


Q & A: Martin Aguilera

Q: When did you start writing screenplays?

A: I've been writing in this format since I was in 8th grade, around 1995 or so. The first script I wrote was a parody of the original Beverly Hills 90210. It was called El Paso 79905—this is where I'm originally from, and my zip code at the time. It amounted to a five minute short, directed by one of my classmates, which was submitted to a competition at a local high school. The short won.

Q: To date, approximately how many screenplays have you written?

A: I've completed nine screenplays to date—four feature scripts and five TV scripts. Two of the features and one of the pilots were co-written.

Q: Do you live in the Los Angeles area?

A: Yes, I've lived in Los Angeles since October 2006, when I began a fellowship through Film Independent's Project: Involve Mentorship Program.

Q: While working to get a screenwriting career off the ground, do you feel it’s important to live in or near the L.A. area? If so, why?

A: I think it's essential to live in Los Angeles. Yes, there are exceptions to the rule, but those are one in a million. Being out here gives you a sense of how this business moves, and operates; it gives you a sense of who these people are. It also shows commitment. Not to mention—face time. Getting to know, on a personal level, the people who will help you move on up. You may be a brilliant screenwriter in Iowa, or Delaware, or New Jersey—but the truth is that Los Angeles/Hollywood is the center of show business. It's been that for a long, long time and I think it will continue to be so. This is a fast-moving business, and if you're not here, out of sight truly is out of mind.

Q: I understand you’ve just optioned a script; can you give me some details on how this option came to fruition?

A: Getting my first option came about because I met a young media entrepreneur through a mutual friend. I was working as the social media coordinator for my friend Matthew Mishory's film Joshua Tree, 1951: A Portrait of James Dean and truly learning as I went along about online marketing and using social media platforms as a means of promotion. So I was introduced, online, as a matter of fact (he is bi-coastal but based in New York) and we developed a friendship, and over time this entrepreneur told me about his interest in producing. He wanted to get a writer to develop an idea he had for a project, and he asked to read some of my things. I sent along a couple of my scripts as samples—including a horror movie I'd co-written with two friends of mine (a writing team). Well, long story short, the producer read it overnight and flipped out for the screenplay. "I couldn't put it down" is music to a writer's ears. He really, truly got the tone and the intention of this story, which had been making the rounds here and there unsuccessfully. It helps when you find that one individual who sees it and believes in it. Sometimes that's really all it takes. So he partnered up with another friend of his, an actor/producer here in Los Angeles, who also responded quite favorably to the writing. The two of them believe this could have the longevity of something like the Saw franchise. I put them in touch with my manager, and my manager contacted my co-writers' agent, and then the negotiating began. And this is how I got my first option off the ground.

Q: Have you ever entered any of the screenwriting competitions? If so, what was the experience like? Do you think it helped your career at all?

A: In 2009 I won the Slamdance Teleplay Competition, third place. It got my name in The Hollywood Reporter for the first time, the trades, and over the internet, but honestly, aside from some congratulations things didn't happen for me because of it. I think this was because at the time I wasn't as well-positioned with contacts, etc., to be able to maximize the win. So nothing came of it for me. What it did do, however, is to align my name with a well-known, well-respected, legitimate Hollywood organization. It looks good on the resume and opens doors, because it lets someone know—this guy's writing was recognized, his writing is of a certain caliber, he's worth reading. It gave me validation with the industry—and that's priceless.

Q: Have you attended any of the myriad how-to screenwriting seminars or workshops? If so, to what degree have they helped—or hindered—you?

A: I haven't attended any writing seminars, but I've been to a workshop or two. I am not a fan. It's important to learn, to be engaged with people who are doing good work out there, to understand what writing for film and television are, it's important to stay current, to know what's out there, to talk to other people about it—but so many people go to those things thinking they're going to get the Holy Grail. There is no secret formula—every writer has his or her own journey. Every writer arrives at storytelling in their own way. When I was in college I dropped out of the only screenwriting class I ever took because I did not agree with the ideas the instructor was putting out there about writing. He had a very jaded, cynical take on it. There's enough of that out there in the world—why would I want to shower that on one of my life's passions? Life's too short.

Q: When marketing one of your screenplays, have you ever utilized any of the “screenplay marketing” sites, such as InkTip, or a query service, such as ScriptBlaster? If so, what were your results? Would you recommend any of these services to other up-and-coming screenwriters?

A: When I won the Slamdance Teleplay Competition, one of the awards was a year on InkTip. Nothing came of it—for me—but that's not to say there haven't been successful acquisitions from such sites. I'm all about getting your work out there through legitimate channels when you're trying to break in with legitimate industry people, and sites like those can help.

Q: Have you ever attended a PitchFest? If so, what was that experience like?

A: I have never attended a PitchFest, although when I was at the NALIP (National Association of Latino Independent Producers) Writer's Lab in Manhattan in 2004, we had to do a "speed date" with some producers, and pitch them our scripts. That being my first time in a situation like that, I fucked it up royally. I did a similar thing once at a mixer at Film Independent. I'm not a big fan of that, to be honest with you.

Q: Are you currently repped by an agent and/or manager? If so, provide a description of your daily/weekly working relationship with him.

A: I do have representation—The Bauer Company in Beverly Hills. I've been with my manager since September of 2011. My manager and I have a good working relationship, but he's a busy man. I do check in with him, personally, about once a month—to follow up on a meeting he sent me on, or to find out what's going on with a script he may have sent out, etc.—but I try not to bother him unless I have something pertinent to discuss. His time is valuable, as is mine, and I try to be a resourceful client. Just because I have representation does not mean I don't continue to seek out or create my own opportunities. If I meet a producer, or an executive, and they express interest in me or my work—then I will put them in touch, and my manager takes it from there. I know some people need a certain level of interaction with their reps to feel secure or comfortable, but I say this sincerely—I have a manager who does his job, and does it well, and I would much rather have someone in my corner doing their job as opposed to "Joe Slick" calling me up every other day. I don't personally need that. I have more contact with his right-hand man at the company, his assistant, who is as brilliantly adept.

Q: I have often told budding screenwriters that the best way to get a script sold is by getting involved in the film community (i.e., film festivals, conferences, seminars, etc.) and making—as you’ve already mentioned—“face time” with the powers that be. In other words, you have to meet the people who can get your script made. It’s important to get these people to read your script, make them fans of your work. Would you agree this is a good course of action?

A: A good course of action is to write a good screenplay. Whether it's a short, or a feature, or a TV pilot—it has to be good. I think it's possible to get too caught up in the mentality of "having a good idea" as opposed to actually executing that idea, on the page. It all starts with FADE IN, and if you don't have something there no one in the world can help you. Everything else should be secondary. That being said, yes—if this is the business you want to be in, if this is what you want to be a part of—then immerse yourself in all aspects of it. Get to know the process inside and out. Not everybody wants to do what you do, and not everybody can do what you can do, but there is value in knowing all of it. If you're starting out, volunteer on film shoots, show up on your friends' sets and pull cables or set up the crafts table, read lines with actors. That sort of thing. Make yourself valuable and expect nothing in return.

Q: Tell me about your typical writing routine. Do you write every day?

A: I'm actually in the process of becoming a more disciplined writer. I don't have a routine, per se, but I desperately want one because I'm a creature of order and habit, and I feel that if I found something that was "just right" for me, it would help me be more productive. Sometimes "the process" for me involves a lot of not writing, if that makes any sense. I'll think about the script, the characters, the structure, dialogues—but I will be doing so while staring into space, or watching a movie or a TV show, or browsing in a bookstore or at the library.

Q: Do you outline your scripts? If so, how detailed are these outlines?

A: I have recently begun to learn the value of outlines/treatments. I used to just have an idea, sit down, and execute it. Now that I've been doing this for a while, and after stumbling a couple of times with scripts that didn't get very far, I see how laying out the stones beforehand can be a great help. So I'll jot down some notes, come up with a beat sheet, and then flesh that out into a treatment. I don't always stick to it, but it's good to know that it's there if you need it. That being said, no two scripts are written the same way. Each script is unique, each one dictates how it will be written. I don't always write every day, but once I get going—say, once I'm about fifteen pages into a script—I tend to bang them out pretty quickly.

Q: You’ve collaborated with a co-writer on some scripts. What were the positive aspects of having a co-writer? What were the negative aspects?

A: I've collaborated with other writers several times: twice on features, and once on one of the pilots. I can't necessarily say there were negative aspects to the end results, although because I'm very much in my own head a lot of the time—as a writer, I've always been a bit of a lone wolf. I enjoy being by myself, thinking, turning ideas around, finding by way out of the labyrinth when I get lost. And I get lost often. However, with the right people, and under the "perfect storm" of creativity, I'm not opposed to it. It's good to break routines, to try something different. This is, after all, a collaborative medium. What happened with the feature was that my buddies had sold and optioned a couple of projects, but they are comedy writers—that's where their strengths lie—and their agency asked them to diversify. So they wrote a horror movie, but it was very much in their own unique style; so although there were frightening elements in it, much of it was quite humorous and wasn't working. They knew that I was a fan of the genre, and knew it well, so they told me to take what they had written and, essentially, make it my own. Carte blanche. So I went off and re-wrote them, restructured the script a bit, fleshed out the characters and the situations, and overall brought a different tone to it—more in line with a slasher film, and I changed the title. Over the phone, the three of us discussed a new ending and agreed on it, and then I went off and wrote that. So this is how my first collaboration came about. Ultimately, it was this script that became my first sale. The second feature collaboration could not have been more different. It was a script that I co-wrote with Matthew Mishory while he was in post-production on his debut feature film, Joshua Tree, 1951: A Portrait of James Dean. I'd gotten to know Matthew during the production of that movie, and we became good friends, with many tastes and sensibilities in common. Prior to the James Dean film, he'd made an award-winning short called Delphinium, about the British avant-garde Renaissance man Derek Jarman. Jarman was a filmmaker who meant a lot to Matthew, and he had always wanted to do something more grand with the subject—an examination of the artist and the artist's life. I knew about Jarman, and had seen a couple of the films, but was certainly no expert. I was over at Matthew's apartment one day, and he asked me to write the feature film with him, which we simple called Jarman. I went off and read biographies, and Jarman's journals, and saw the films, and watched interviews with him on YouTube, and simply tried to capture the essence of the man. It was difficult for me because I did not immediately connect. But I love a good challenge. What Matthew had in mind to do, initially, was so take ideas Jarman had not been able to execute in his lifetime (Jarman died of complications from AIDS in 1994) and execute those ideas in six different sequences, which would be peppered with biographical elements from the man's life. This was a wild, avant-garde idea—but Matthew is definitely a wild artist. Through long discussions we finally came to the conclusion that something more formal would work better. The problem with writing a film about someone like Jarman is that he lived many lives. A person could make several films about different periods of his life, and also about his ideas and imagination. Matthew was very clear about what he wanted. I was still trying to find a way into Jarman's life. Finally, it dawned on me that the thing to do was to focus the film on the last decade of his life: this was the period in which Jarman went from wanting to be recognized as a grand artist and filmmaker...to simply fighting for his rights amid the AIDS crisis and wanting to be recognized as a human being. What an arc! It excited me. There was our movie! In this period of his life Jarman also made some of his best films, discovered Tilda Swinton in the process, became an activist, and found true love. Matthew got excited about my take—and we began to write. While he was editing his previous film, I would write ten or twelve pages, sometimes fifteen, send them to him; he would re-write me entirely, and send them back to me along with his batch of ten to twelve pages or more, I would re-write him entirely, and so the process went on until we finished a draft. This is still a work in progress—we're still returning to the project and it will probably be quite different than what we've got at the moment, or maybe not, who knows—but this is how that particular script came to be. Matthew is currently traveling the world with the James Dean film, as it goes from festival to festival, so when things settle we'll jump right in. The TV pilot I co-wrote with another friend. She and I were having dinner one evening and we were tossing ideas around, and one in particular really stuck out, so I said, "This would make a really interesting TV show." She had been thinking the same thing, so we agreed to put our heads together and see if we could crack it. We drove down to her parents' beach house, not too far from San Diego, and spent the weekend in coffee shops. The first morning we sat next to each other and mapped out the first episode in about fifteen beats. I took the first half of those, about seven, because it's what felt natural for me to write, and she took the remaining beats, and then we wrote across from each other, commenting when we needed to as we wrote along, e-mailing versions back and forth, until by the end of the weekend we had a very rough but completed draft. Over the next week after we returned to L.A. we threw it around back and forth a bit and then it was done.

Q: What’s your view on Writer’s Block?

A: I think sometimes writer's block is part of the process, if that makes any sense. Some deal with it less than others, but it's always there. A writer has to work their way through it. Many times I don't know where to begin, what story I'm going to tell next, what I'm going to name the characters, how things will be resolved. But I push through it. And the way I do that, is by immersing myself—in TV shows, in films, in books. I love bookstores, and I love libraries. I spend hours there—literally hours, simply reading, or wandering the aisles, seeing what leaps out at me, captures my attention. It's always something different. But when I do this, I understand that subconsciously, I am engaged with my creativity. In the back of my head I'm thinking about the story. Ultimately, though, you have to be honest with yourself and know when you've spent too much time with the block—and simply fire up Final Draft, or take out the notebook and the pen—and just sit down to write. Don't expect a masterpiece the first time out. Or, ever, as a matter of fact. The writers I admire—Sorkin, for instance, or Tony Kushner—agonize over the process too. And I'm sure I'm not the only one who thinks what they write is pretty great. It's not easy. You must simply do it. To quote the late Ray Bradbury, “You've got to jump off the cliff all the time and build your wings on the way down.”

Q: How do you beat procrastination?

A: I give in to it. It's part of the "writer's block"—you have to allow yourself to go there sometimes. What you cannot do, is stay in it forever, because if you do, your ship will sail. You have to have the discipline to give yourself permission to procrastinate, and then snap the hell out of it.

Q: “Know the rules of screenwriting before you break them”: Agree or disagree?

A: Absolutely. I've encountered many eager aspiring hopefuls who think they are going to be the ones to reinvent the wheel. It's just not going to happen, and I don't mean this in a disparaging way, but if you don't know the rules, if you don't know what came before you—but most importantly, if you don't know why it came before you—you won't be able to bring your own unique brushstrokes to the canvas you are painting. I'll hear, "Well, Tarantino did it. Charlie Kaufmann did it." And I'll shrug politely and say, "Okay," but what comes to mind is—"You're no Tarantino; you're no Kaufmann." And if you go back and study how they arrived at what they ultimately ended up doing, you'll notice that they grasped and mastered the basics first. Those basics are there for a reason—and I don't just mean format here, how it looks or is laid out on the page; the basics are the foundation of screenwriting, of storytelling itself.

Q: Who critiques your writing before you send it off to agents, producers, etc.?

A: When I finish a script, I usually send it to a few key people for their thoughts and feedback. They are writers and filmmakers themselves, people who know stories, and who will tell me why something does or does not work. I take the notes that they give me, and mull them over, and if there's a common problem in the notes, then I focus on that issue in the re-write. I take the best of their suggestions, and leave the ones I'm not feeling, and just go with it. From this I get a final writer's draft, and I send that out.

Q: So how many drafts will you do before you finally get to your “final writer’s draft”?

A: For me, personally, I write the rough draft, revise it for grammar, spelling, and syntax, send it out to my trusted few, revise it based on notes, give it a once-over, and then it's done. The most drafts I think I've ever done is three, and by this I mean versions in which the story has changed enough to be considered a new draft. For the most part, what is my rough draft does not change considerably from the final version—after it's on the page, it tends to be simply a nip/tuck job.

Q: As a “minority” screenwriter, have you ever come up against any discrimination or prejudice from any of the production companies, producers, or agents you’ve dealt with?

A: I've only dealt with one instance that made me uncomfortable and angry. I recently met with a director/producer who made a comment about the relationship between two boys in a pilot I wrote. Their connection is a central, driving force of the narrative, and he said something along the lines of, "Their kiss would be off-putting to some people." I got quiet real fast, and the meeting ended shortly after that. I wanted to say to him, "Are you kidding me? I don't give a flying fuck if this is off-putting to anyone—it's 2012 and if somebody has a problem with this they can follow you down to Hell." But dignity and professionalism prevailed. I took his remark for what it was—ignorance. This person was from Argentina, and had a very macho demeanor—and I grew up around those misguided attitudes and behaviors so tragically prevalent in my Latino community. I sensed his homophobia stemmed from his own discomfort with unabashed sexuality, but that's his problem and not mine.

Q: Last summer I interviewed Justin Samuels, an African-American screenwriter who sued William Morris Endeavor and Creative Artists Agency for racial discrimination. I know you’ve read this interview—would you care to comment on Mr. Samuels’ complaint?

A: His journey has been his, and my journey has been mine. Personally, I think his argument is valid—to a point; but I also think his attitude is very negative, and how you feel affects who you are and how people respond to you. There's a sense of unearned entitlement to [Justin’s] claims. I'm of the opinion that he doesn't fully grasp how this business works and has very backward ideas on WHY it should be HIS WAY. That's my two cents on the matter. I'm Latino, I'm gay, and I'm overweight. None of this has stopped my material from getting read, it hasn't stopped me getting representation. I do the work. I show up. But I have had many rejections; I have had many unanswered queries. I don't focus my energies on negativity. That's no way to live, and certainly no way to build a career. I'd rather channel that into the writing.

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APRIL 2015 ANNOUNCEMENT: My debut novel, Luigi's Chinese Delicatessen, is now available in paperback from Amazon.com and Kindle e-book! (You're gonna love it cuz it's all about Hollywood and screenwriting!)

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