By Valerie Kalfrin
Watching Clerks spurred Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner to stay in show business.
Jeff Kinney, author of the best-selling Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, worked on his first book about his hapless middle-school protagonist for eight years before even shopping it around.
Stacey Snider, co-chairman and CEO of 20th Century Fox, checked her ego, Ivy League education, and law degree at the door for her first industry job in a talent agency mailroom. “I was once sent to deliver a script to Steven Spielberg,” she recalled. “All I did was push the button and hand the script to the person who met me at the gate, but I remember thinking, Wow! I’m in show biz!”
The path to success is filled with more zigzags than straight lines. In that spirit comes the book Getting There: A Book of Mentors by Gillian Zoe Segal. Thirty people from various disciplines, such as investor Warren Buffett, chef Daniel Boulud, and Nobel Peace Prize recipient Muhammad Yunus, talk about their backgrounds, inspirations, setbacks, and handling discouragement. Although light on people of color and women, the book offers plenty of encouraging tales about the power of persistence and resilience.
Weiner, who is creating The Romanoffs, an anthology series about the modern-day descendants of the Romanov family set to debut next year, said that artists who don’t share how they became successful do a disservice to those who admire them and want to emulate them. “If you don’t get to see the notes, the rewrites, and the steps, it’s easy to look at a finished product and be under the illusion that it just came pouring out of someone’s head like that. People who are young, or still struggling, can get easily discouraged because they can’t do it like they thought it was done.”
Although he was rejected from every writing class at Wesleyan, Weiner found his voice in narrative writing while attending film school at the University of Southern California. “Rejection enrages me, but that ‘I’ll show you!’ feeling is an extremely powerful motivator,” he said in the book.
Even so, he wrote spec scripts for years after graduation that failed to snag anyone’s interest. His wife, Linda, worked as an architect and supported them. “I got very bitter, seeing people I didn’t think deserved it succeed. It was a dark time. Show business looked so impenetrable that I eventually stopped writing,” he said. “I felt like the most useless, worthless person in the world.”
Watching 1994’s Clerks, however, “inspired me to get off my ass and make my own independent film: a small, quirky comedy where I played myself—a failing screenwriter.” Although the film didn’t sell or get into festivals, the act of completing something he’d set out to do was “a transformational experience,” Weiner said.
A friend from college had a pilot at Warner Bros. that needed “punch-up,” or funnier writing, and invited Weiner to join the other writers. He showed a knack for comedy, and even though the show didn’t last, it led to another job. Weiner later became a writer on the series The Naked Truth and The Sopranos.
He worked on his passion project, Mad Men, at every spare moment, then pitched it to small production companies. It was rejected for four years before AMC fell in love with it and agreed to give Weiner complete creative control. “I was so excited—but at the time no one thought AMC was, in show biz terms, a ‘somebody.’ Everybody felt sorry for me. I can’t even tell you the pity I got. It was as if I were taking my project and screening it in someone’s basement.”
Mad Men ran from 2007 to 2015 and won several Golden Globes and Primetime Emmy Awards. Over the seven years he lived with the project before it finally appeared on television, Weiner said he kept his faith in it.
“Hollywood is tough, but I do believe that if you are truly talented, get your material out there, can put up with the rejection, and don’t set a time limit for yourself, someone will notice you,” he said. “The most defeatist thing I hear is ‘I’m going to give it a couple of years.’ You can’t set a clock for yourself. … You should want it so badly that you don’t have a choice. You have to commit for the long haul.”
Weiner regrets kicking himself earlier in his career “for not having accomplished anything significant. I spent so much time trying to write but was paralyzed by how behind I felt. Many years later I realized that if I had written only a couple of pages a day I would have written five hundred pages at the end of a year (and that’s not even working weekends).”
Author Jeff Kinney echoed the idea of not putting a timetable on success. Kinney now has more than 185 million Diary of a Wimpy Kid books available in 53 languages. Three were adapted into movies.
Kinney had dreamed of being a newspaper cartoonist and sent out submission packets for years, only to be rejected. While working as a games designer at the educational site FunBrain, he thought of the title Diary of a Wimpy Kid and began keeping a sketchbook, working and reworking jokes and characters. It took him four years to fill up the sketchbook and another four years to have a finished first draft. FunBrain put the Wimpy Kid online one day as short diary entries, and his audience was born.
“People often broadcast their goals, then get embarrassed if they are unable to deliver,” said Kinney, who works as creative director of Poptropica, an educational gaming site for children. “If you have an idea that you think is a winner, nurture it and take your time developing it. Anything worth having requires working hard. People want to jump into something and be a success right out of the gate, but becoming really good at anything that requires skill usually takes years.”
Snider, one of eight women featured in the book, started writing coverage for $50 a script while working her way through law school at UCLA. She realized she loved reading so much that she decided to use her law degree to work with writers.
Her entry-level job in the mailroom of the talent agency Triad Artists was like an extra year of graduate school, she said. “The variety of assignments thrown at you forces you to be resilient, to think on your feet, to fine-tune your powers of persuasion, and to manage different personalities.”
While working as a secretary at a production company, Snider asked a friend who was a literary agent’s assistant if she knew of any books that could make good films. The friend recommended Presumed Innocent, the courtroom thriller debut by Scott Turow. Snider got her boss excited about the book, and after it became a best-seller (and 1990 feature film), she was recruited to be director of development at the production company Guber-Peters. She’s since worked in development at Universal and DreamWorks as well as 20th Century Fox.
“I have always viewed my career as a rolling wave. While I do think that both men and women can ‘have it all,’ I don’t think anyone can have it all at once. You need to figure out what your priorities are and then fulfill your potential at each stage of your life,” Snider said.
That includes trying to make a difference however you can, said Snider, who also was a producer on the TV series Under the Dome. While she was at DreamWorks, the studio made 2011’s The Help, which had been rejected by other studios but was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Drama and received an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress Octavia Spencer. The studio also made 2012’s Lincoln, which, although focusing heavily on the Civil War, brought out the important role that the president’s wife, Mary Todd Lincoln (Sally Field), played in his life.
“Movies are at their best when they either faithfully represent a culture or when they are aspirational,” Snider said. “Either way, storytellers need to make sure that when women appear onscreen, they are presented with as many complexities as they actually possess. As far as we’ve come, there are still, unfortunately, not enough movies about substantive women.”