Industry Pro: Writer Sterling Anderson
If you hear that someone has gone from being an award-winning Napa Valley wine maker to an award-winning Hollywood writer, you assume that by the time they are on the podium accepting the trophy in their 2nd career, they have it all figured out, right? Well, what happens when their source of income disappears overnight, as it did with this week’s profile subject? Read on and find out how a seeming dead-end led to an interesting detour and then a whole new chapter of success…
Current position (or recently-completed project or projects): I am currently finishing a script assignment and doing a rewrite of my first novel, as well as doing consulting on a new one hour network TV show. I’m also doing my list for next year’s film festival appearances and panels. I want to stick with California, but even limiting myself that way, I can go to three or four a month.
Hometown: Raised in Tuskegee, Alabama in the segregated South; moved to Davis, California, a liberal college town.
College and degree: St. Mary’s College, BA in English.
Did you have any internships while you were in college? My first two years, I was a religious studies major. I had some wacky internships with a lot of these, let’s say, “religious leaders,” in the community. I declared English as my major during my junior year and I had to take 22 English classes in my last two years of college to catch up so I didn’t have any internships for that major.
What made you want to be a writer and/or what made you want to be in film or television? There are two different answers and they are not related. I was the first and the youngest black wine maker in Napa Valley. A writer named David Sheff did a feature article on me for “Playboy Magazine.” I literally left the winery for the interview in a wine-stained shirt and jumped in my truck. He greeted me with a cup of coffee at his Sonoma Valley house. I looked over his shoulder and saw a big poster of John Lennon. He had actually done an interview with John Lennon and Yoko Ono for “Playboy.” I remember thinking, “I would love to be a writer. I don’t know how to be one, but I know I want to be one.”
The other one was when a lawyer friend of mine who worked at the talent agency ICM sent me a screenplay as a joke. After I read it, I said that I thought it was good, that I enjoyed reading it. Meaning that I didn’t think it was anything great. He said, “Well, the joke is on you because that screenplay sold for $3 million.” It wasn’t the money that inspired me. It was the fact that I read the screenplay and thought, “I could do this and I could do it better.” Based on that, I bought every book ever printed on screenwriting and sort of went through a self-taught apprenticeship.
I wrote my first screenplay and showed it to my lawyer friend and his assistant. They both said it was terrible. So I wrote another screenplay, and gave it to the same friend, who liked it this time. So I sent it to a couple more friends, one of whom was starting to become known as an actor, with the promise that neither of them shows it to anybody. The next thing I know, I got a phone call from a guy named Michael Besman at TriStar Pictures. He told me he read this wonderful script that was given to him by my actor friend and he wanted to meet with me. That call started my career.
Do you remember the name of the so-so screenplay your friend sent you? BASIC INSTINCT by Joe Eszterhas.
Of course… So what was your first paying job in the industry? I think the first money I was paid was by Columbia Pictures. A nice gentleman named Garreth Wiggins read my samples and liked my writing. We met and he asked me what kind of stuff I liked to write. I said the movie that made me want to become a writer was TENDER MERCIES. Small town character pieces were my favorite and I’d always wanted to do a remake of RAINMAKER, which is about a man who ventures into a town and somehow solves everybody’s problems. And then they have to reevaluate everything because they discover this stranger who changed their lives was a felon. Garreth Wiggins paid me $40,000 to write it. That was my first job. And the title of the film was GUS and it was never made.
What do you consider your big break? My writing partner at the time and I sold a spec script for a considerable amount of money to the late Dawn Steel when she was at Disney.
Did that project make any progress? Did it get made? We got a lot of money, and it never got made. But this is kind of funny. This was the old days, remember? From coming up with the concept to finishing it was about five weeks. We turned it in to our agent, I think, on a Thursday. We got a preemptive offer to take it off the market on Monday morning. And I think the following Thursday, we got our first check. It definitely doesn’t work that way today.
So now I’d like to cover the big beats of your career. Fill in the blanks and then bring me up to the present. What I found out rather quickly is that I had a knack for fixing scripts. And so the first five years of my career, I got a lot of rewrite jobs. And probably made more money than I ever have in my career. I was going from job to job rewriting a lot of known writers, big projects, without getting any credit. I didn’t know any better. I thought this was what my career was going to be.
And then I met producer-director Robert Greenwald, who really was an inspiration and a true mentor, on the job and in life. He’d won an Emmy for directing Farrah Fawcett in “The Burning Bed,” which was a movie-of-the-week (MOWs), a format he specialized in. He read my work and brought me in for a job, and just kept bringing me back. And after a couple of years of writing with Robert on some really amazing projects, he hired me to write “Three Friends,” a miniseries about Coretta Scott King, Myrlie Evers, and Dr. Betty Shabazz. I went to Atlanta to follow around Coretta Scott King, which was amazing. And then I had to interview Myrlie Evers, Medgar Evers’ widow. And then I went and met the six daughters of Dr. Betty Shabazz.
Somewhere around this time, Robert said to me, “You are the best kept secret in Hollywood.” At the time, I was rewriting everybody and not getting any credit. He was just telling me how reliable I was as a writer. That was when I said, “I think I want to not be the best kept secret in Hollywood.”
So you sort of stepped out of the role of script doctor? Well, you know, because of Robert, I did a lot of book adaptations. I did a book adaptation for Lifetime Television called “Dangerous Evidence: The Lori Jackson Story.” And right after that, I wrote a spec script which was bought by Les Moonves (now President & CEO of CBS TV) then a young hotshot guy at CBS. He turned my feature spec into an MOV called “The Simple Life of Noah Dearborn.” It starred Sydney Poitier, Mary Louise Parker, and Diane Weist. It became one the most watched MOWs in his CBS history. So overnight, I became the MOW king.
So what did you do from there? Well, then 9‑11 happened and people immediately stopped doing MOWs and then reality TV hit. My steady job ‑‑ you know, I wrote probably three MOWs a year — just disappeared. I went from mid‑six figure salary to zero and it was really devastating. My agent at the time kept saying, “Write a spec script for series television.” I was like, “I know nothing about TV.” He said, “Come on – write a spec script for television.” I’d say, “Leave me alone.”
I had just bought a beautiful home in Hancock Park from a woman named Arlene Klasky with whom I’d become friends. She had a company called Klasky‑Csupo that created “Rugrats” and “The Thornberries.” I called and told her I was out of work, but I wanted to write. She said, “Well, come on in. Let’s develop some projects together. So for a few years, Arlene Klasky basically saved my career and kept bread on the table for me and my kids.”
How did you end up in one hour TV dramas from there? Did you finally listen to the agent who told you to write a sample TV script? Yes, my agent told me to write a one-hour pilot. I asked, “How do you write a one-hour pilot?” We had a long conversation. I got off the phone and I wrote a one-hour pilot. Almost exactly two weeks later, I was sitting in front of David Mamet interviewing for a new show that he had developed with Shawn Ryan (Creator, “The Shield”) called “The Unit.”
No pressure. Right. I can tell you there are only a couple of times that I nearly lost it in my life and in my career. One time, I bumped into Barbara Streisand. I uttered something nonsensical trying to give her directions because she was lost. The other time was driving across town to Santa Monica to meet David Mamet. I must have gotten lost 16 times. I just wasn’t in my body.
So was that your first job in series television? Yes. I was with them the entire first season. I had had some success before that. My MOW “The Simple Life of Noah Dearborn” had gotten three Emmy nominations. Mr. Poitier and I won an Image award, too. So I didn’t realize I didn’t know how to write until I met David Mamet. He was amazing, really amazing. He could teach a poodle how to write. Of course, Shawn was no slouch either.
After the first season, we didn’t know if we were going to get a pickup. I was getting offers. I went to a show called “Heist.” But I think we got canceled on the 8th or 9th episode. And from there, I went to “Medium.” In that time I sold probably three pilots, too and also kept getting hired to do features and so I did some rewrites and I think my last official job was to write the script for the remake of the movie SUPER FLY.
So where did the lecturing and the book on writing come in? Well, while I was on “The Unit,” I got hired to teach a couple of classes. I started teaching screenwriting classes to undergrad and grad students at USC Film School. And it was amazing to me how little they knew. So then I got their reading list, and most of the material was written by failed writers or people who had never actually done it professionally. Ninety percent of them never had any credits, and so they hadn’t been in the writing room. They hadn’t been hired to write a TV show.
So you decided to write a book about what it’s really like to work as a writer in Hollywood. Exactly. Well, I promised myself to write the book. It took eight or 10 years from that moment to starting to write it.
And so the book came out in September? Have you gotten good feedback? Yeah, I have had rave reviews. I have been really lucky. While of course I will not be the last, I am one of the first working writers to write about the experience, to share the knowledge. Screenwriters are so fearful that the next person will take away their job that they don’t share. I just don’t believe that. Two of my students are very hot writers right now. Another student just rocketed to fame. And while none of these people owe me anything, I am very proud that at least I took the time.
I’m looking for a eureka moment, when you realized you did or did want to do something or that you should do something differently. This is an industry where kindness is sometimes thought of as a weakness. And I’ve had more than half a dozen jobs writing where I got so many notes and I tried to be so accommodating to everyone that the people giving me their notes stopped liking the project. A friend of mine who is a studio executive told me, “In our position, we want somebody to walk in and say, ‘We go that way!’” She was telling me I should fight for my drafts. So there are situations where should have said, “What you have, you like. Stop messing with it.”
Describe a typical workday when you are working on a show? Well, the last four weeks have involved spending eight to 10 hours a day in the writer’s room working on a white board beating out the A story, B story, C story. Just like when a show is in production. When you’re on a show and your episode is up, it’s like having finals in college. You know, it’s just crazy for two weeks. But when your show is not up, you’re in the writer’s room. You are back in your office. You are working on your next idea or you are helping other people get their shows up.
Worst job (or worst day) in the entertainment industry: I didn’t perform well on a job I got hired to do by a very high profile writer, producer team. I didn’t show up and I didn’t give it my best. One of producers said, “You are one of the worst writers ever.” That was a bad moment.
Best job or best day in the entertainment industry: In television, definitely when David Mamet walked up to me at “The Unit”’s Christmas party and said I wrote the best episode of the year. In film, when Sydney Poitier came up to me on the set and said, “So what are you writing next?”
What’s the best thing about being a working writer? Getting paid to do what you love.
What about the worst thing about being a working writer? I think Sue Grafton said it best. She got out of screenwriting because she was tired of making excuses for other people’s bad ideas.
I’m looking for a brush with greatness. It can be a celebrity encounter or just being exposed to someone being brilliant in what they do. David Mamet telling us, “Don’t turn in anything that you can’t bet your life on.”
What’s the one thing you wish you would have known when you started in entertainment? That film is a director’s medium and television is the writer’s medium. If someone had told me that when I first started, I would’ve gone straight into television.
I’m looking for the secret of your success and/or what advice you would give to somebody starting out. Bruce Dern once said that everybody eventually makes it, and it’s true. Everybody does eventually make it, but so many people dabble and drop out. That’s why we have the reputation of this business is so hard. It really isn’t that hard. It’s not harder than going to law school. It’s not harder than going to medical school. It certainly is not harder than being married and no way harder than being a parent.
What is your next move or the next few moves? I have written screenplays or sold pilots where it went up the chain and people loved it and then it didn’t get made. It just got put away. So the next move for someone like me who has been paid and had a career ‑‑ a fairly successful career for 17 or 18 years as a writer — is to not have that happen. The only way you can do that is to write the book first. You write the book first, and it gets published. It stays there. Whether you get a little royalties or a lot of royalties, it doesn’t go away. And you can let someone else fail at making the movie. Or you might get lucky and it will become another “Dexter.”
Click here to check out Sterling Anderson’s book, Beyond Screenwriting: Insider Tips and Career Advice from a Successful TV and Film Writer (affiliate link), or visit his website for more information about his career.
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