There is more than one way to skin a cat (boy, that’s a terrible expression) and there is more than one path to make it as a screenwriter. Some of the most famous SciFi screenwriters had humble beginnings. Some got into screenwriting from distinctly non Hollywood jobs. Others were practically born into it.
No matter where you are in your writing career, take solace in these six stories of famous SciFi screenwriters who found their way to the top. Most went on to become directors, producers, and some even moguls.
Gene Roddenberry began his writing career as a Los Angeles police office. His first assignment for the LAPD was to write press releases and teach traffic safety classes. He graduated to writing speeches for the Chief of Police. But he wanted more. In 1951, Roddenberry took a second job submitting real life police stories to the DRAGNET radio show. This led to an assignment as a technical adviser, and he eventually started sending in scripts under his pseudonym, Robert Wesley. In 1956 he finally left the force and became a full time screenwriter. Fourteen years, and many scripts later, Rodenberry sold to NBC his pilot—a ‘space western’ called STAR TREK.
Joss Whedon took a much more traditional route to screenwriting and filmmaking. The son and grandson of screenwriters, Whedon went to film school at Wesleyan and graduated in 1987. After relocating to Los Angeles, he landed a staff job on the sitcom ROSEANNE. Whedon also became an in-demand script doctor for various features, including SPEED. His first SciFi screenplays of note were ALIEN: RESURRECTION and BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER. Whedon was dissatisfied with the released versions of both films. He rectified the later when he was given full creative control over the Buffy TV series.
Christopher Nolan started off his filmmaking career with the thrilling job of directing corporate videos and industrial films. But he also had time to write and direct the short film DOODLEBUG about a man chasing an insect around a flat with a shoe, only to discover when killing it that it is a miniature of himself. Unfortunately for Nolan’s filmmaking career, he received nothing but a stack of rejection letters. In 1998 he took matters into his own hands by writing, directing, shooting, editing, and funding his first feature, FOLLOWING. The film had a great festival run, winning several awards, and giving Nolan the chance to make his breakthrough hit MEMENTO.
Shane Salerno was somewhat of a child prodigy. As a teenager he wrote, directed, and produced the documentary SUNDOWN: THE FUTURE OF CHILDREN AND DRUGS, which won several best documentary awards and earned Salerno congressional honors. At 19 he was brought on to be a writer/director apprentice by nine time Emmy winner Gregory Hoblit. At 23 Steven Spielberg hired Salerno to write his first screenplay. He’s gone on to write for Michael Bay (ARAMAGEDDON), Ron Howard (BAY OF PIGS), Oliver Stone (SAVAGES), Michael Mann (THE BORDER), and James Cameron (AVATAR 4).
Chris Carter was never really into SciFi. He started off as a journalist, writing and eventually editing Surfing Magazine for 13 years. He didn’t get into screenwriting until he met Jeffrey Katzenberg, Carter’s girlfriend’s boss. He wrote contemporary youth television comedies at Walt Disney Studios. Wanting to be more dramatic writer, Carter bounced around the networks for a while and wrote a ton of unproduced pilots. He finally landed at Fox and pitched the idea for what eventually became the X-FILES.
Hampton Fancher started of his career as an actor. From the late 50’s to the late 70’s he starred in dozens of TV series and movies. He then somehow got Philip K. Dick to option “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” Fancher only wrote one SciFi screenplay, but it was BLADE RUNNER.
Some of these writers (and many others) got their first breakthrough by winning a screenplay or film competition. Besides getting you noticed, festival awards give you a bit of street cred. Maybe more important, it gives you the confidence to trudge on and the feedback to improve your art. So if you’ve got a SciFi script you’re proud of, consider entering the OWA SciFi Screenwriting Contest (www.otherworldsaustin.com/screenplays). You never know what winning the top prize might lead to.