22 April 2012
"The talent for being happy is appreciating and liking what you have, instead of what you don't have." -Woody Allen
I’ve loved Nick Santora’s writing for years and was devastated when “Law & Order” gobbled him up before we could get him on “Boston Legal.” Nick, who started life as a lawyer, got his first writing credit on “The Sopranos” and then went on to work on “The Guardian,” “Law & Order,” and “Prison Break,” with a short respite in there when he co-created the hilarious reality series “Beauty and the Geek.” Nick now works steadily on the show he co-created with Matt Olmstead, “The Breakout Kings,” a show not picked up by its intended network (FBC) that proved an afterlife can be found for compelling properties – especially if you have a very powerful producer behind you like Peter Chernin. I imagine that FBC regrets their decision.
Imagine my delight and surprise to learn that Nick is a novelist and a damn good one. His new novel, Fifteen Digits arrives soon and you should pre-order now! It’s a thriller and a page turner with heart-stopping tension and great characters to go with a great plot device and will have you questioning your own ethical values along the way.
Neely: When is the book scheduled to hit the shelves?
Nick: The book will hit the stores April 24, but it might actually appear in some stores before that.
Neely: It’s probably already on Amazon.
Nick: It is on Amazon and we’ve already pre-sold a lot of books. Fans of “Breakout Kings” and “Prison Break” have been very supportive of the book.
Neely: Do you have any book signings or speaking engagements lined up?
Nick: I have a book launch party at the Barnes and Noble at the Grove on April 25th at 7 PM. Some of the people from the shows I’ve worked on will be there as well as other really great and talented people in the industry and friends. I’ve got family coming in from New York that I’m really excited about. Anyone can come so I hope whoever’s reading this will show up.
Little Brown is your publisher and, by the way, they publish three of my other favorite authors – Terry McDermott, who was the previous “Writer I Love,” Michael Connelley and Joseph Wambaugh. You’re in excellent company.
Nick: (laughing) Never heard of those guys. (Neely laughs loudly) Michael Who? I would trade my book sales for Michael Connelley’s.
Neely: How is your publisher planning to roll this out?
Nick: They’ve been great and have been putting a lot of support behind the book. They’ve been doing a lot of press and I have other book events that will be scheduled and put up on my website (http://www.nicksantora.com/). They’re trying to push it as a crime-thriller.
Neely: How would you synopsize the story? Give me a logline.
Nick: How can it be insider trading, when you’ve been an outsider all your life?
I can’t take credit for that. One of the junior editors at Little Brown came up with it and I stole it.
Neely: That’s really really good. What was your inspiration for this story?
Nick: Fifteen Digits and my first novel Slip & Fall, are kind of autobiographical in the sense that they’re about blue collar guys in the white collar world realizing that they don’t fit in. The desperation you feel when you don’t know the rules of the game and you need to be successful.
My favorite part of Slip & Fall was when I wrote about the working man’s curse. It’s kind of what my father did (and my mother). My dad was a construction worker, a carpenter; very talented and he busted his tail so that I could be the first man in the family to go to college. My mother worked really hard too.
Then I went on to law school, which was such an exciting thing for my parents. I had no desire to be a lawyer, but they had just spent a fortune sending me to my alma mater (and yours) Washington University in St. Louis. That tuition in 1988 was 20 grand a year and that’s 1988 money; it was really expensive. They sent me there and made all these sacrifices for me to get an education, so I felt I had to do something real with that degree and be a grownup. But all I wanted to be was a writer. I didn’t think you could make a living doing that, so I didn’t even attempt it.
Anyway, the working man’s curse is that you do everything you can to give your kid this sheepskin to hang on his wall so he could say he’s an educated man. Then you send him out into a world he’s not familiar with. I went out and worked at the top, fanciest, biggest law firm in the world – Sullivan and Cromwell. Very nice people there, very talented and hardworking lawyers, and most of them were from a world I didn’t even know about.
They would talk about where they went skiing as kids. I remember at one dinner they passed around a box, a humidor, for everyone who wanted cigars. I didn’t know what was in the box. I didn’t even know what a humidor was and I called it a cubidor. And I was so embarrassed when I got it wrong. I was 25 years old. No one in my family smoked, let alone smoked cigars. How the hell was I supposed to know what a humidor was?
Neely: I would imagine that they didn’t make much of an effort to make you feel more comfortable.
Nick: Some didn’t. But some did. There were people there who grew up with five silver spoons in their mouth and they were the nicest people in the world. So it wasn’t really a class thing, although to some extent it was because I didn’t know the vocabulary. They would talk about some people as if they were baseball players and I should know their stats – talk about the guys who ran hedge funds and banks. And they all knew who these guys were, and I mean first year associates who knew who these guys were because their dads had worked with them or their dads had golfed with them – or their families had sailed together on weekends.
But on my weekends, my dad and I watched football and went to my grandmother’s for dinner. We didn’t know bankers and captains of industry.
I didn’t last long in that world at Sullivan. But there was a wonderful attorney at that firm named Sam Seymour, who I honored in Fifteen Digits by naming a character after him – Max Seymour. Sam had taken me under his wing and wanted me to be successful at Sullivan. He was great to me. I always felt I kind of let him down when I left.
I left one of the biggest and best firms in the world to work at a five attorney law firm above a pizza place in Brooklyn that represented people who got in accidents. I represented as many construction workers as I could ‘cause that’s the world I knew. I felt much more comfortable talking to guys about how they got injured because the Skil saw didn’t have the right kind of guard on it. I knew what that meant.
That’s what my books are about. One reviewer called me the blue collar John Grisham. I took that as a huge compliment. I think blue collar workers are not something you should strive not to be. I think if you’re a blue collar worker and you love your job, you’re making this country go. You’re literally building it. All my heroes growing up were blue collar workers, so my characters are men from that world. Working with your hands doesn’t mean you’re ignorant; it just means you’re capable.
Neely: Before we go into more about the book, I have to ask you about the hilarious insider references. I picked up on the law firm: Olmsted and Taft, Matt Olmsted being your co-creator on “Breakout Kings.” I also caught Alfredo Barrios – what was he in this?
Nick: Alfredo Barrios was a Federal Prosecutor in the book.
Neely: He’s another lawyer, isn’t he?
Nick: Alfredo is a lawyer and a phenomenal writer in the entertainment business as well as a good pal of mine.
Neely: I’ve been following his career for the last seven or eight years. He’s another writer I really wanted for David Kelley but was never able to put it together. Who else did I miss?
Nick: There’s a low end criminal defense attorney in Fifteen Digits named Ari Greenberg (Neely giggles knowingly) who’s named after my incredible agent Ari Greenberg. Ari’s bald and I’m pretty sure I gave the character a nice head of hair in the book. I’m bald, so it was a gift from one bald guy to another.
There is a reference to a medical case in the book, a big class action law suit, and the defendant is Estrin Medical. Estrin is the last name of Zack Estrin who’s a writer I worked with on “Prison Break” for four years. He’s currently a writer/producer on “The River.” Zack’s a wonderful guy and my friend, so I put that in there.
If you look at everything I write, the name Kolbrenner will be in there at some point. Scott Kolbrenner has been my friend since elementary school and we’re godfathers to each others’ kids. He lives in Encino now. We both moved out here from New York and I put him in every single thing I write. I wrote a comic book series and on the second page, a guy named Kolbrenner gets his head blown off with a rocket. That was sweet.
Neely: What does Scott Kolbrenner do?
Nick: He’s an investment banker for Houlihan Lokey. He’s explained to me what he does for a living like 20 times but I still can’t figure it out. He’s much smarter than I am.
Neely: Thinking of you and Olmsted and Barrios, this generally leads me to ask if there’s a writer/lawyer mafia in Hollywood.
Nick: (laughing) I know a few writers that are lawyers that are out here. I think it’s a disadvantage trying to break into the business because people think you can only write legal shows…
Neely: …and yet it’s a great foot in the door that most people don’t have.
Nick: It’s a great foot in the door in order to get on to a legal show only. My first ever credit was on “The Sopranos” and my first full time gig was “The Guardian” on CBS, which was a legal drama. I do remember a writer once saying something along the lines of “Well you’re a lawyer.” And I really got my back up and said, “No. I’m a writer who happened to go to law school, which just makes me a more effective writer than most people on this show.” And I was a staff writer and this was a senior writer and I snapped back. I was really defensive about being a lawyer at the beginning of my career because people want to put you in a creative box and I wasn’t going to allow that to happen. I haven’t written a legal show since “Law & Order” and that was 8 years ago.
I think that going to law school and actually practicing law helps a great deal. I know a lot of “quote unquote” lawyers in the entertainment business who say they are lawyers and I’ll ask them, “Where did you litigate? What judges were you in front of? Tell me about some of your cases.” And they just stare back at me because none of them have ever seen the inside of a courtroom. They’re full of shit. I was doing depositions eight times a week, arguing motions constantly, picking juries, going to trial on the rare occasion the cases didn’t settle – almost everything settles.
I actually know what happens when you go into chambers and have conversation with the judge ex parte or with the other side there. I can tell right away when someone writes a legal show if they’ve ever actually practiced law or not. You know by the fourth page. Another benefit of having been a lawyer is that nothing that gets thrown at you when you’re a writer can scare you. If you’re a showrunner and the network has a fit over an episode and says, “Oh man! We have to throw out this act because of budget issues.” Or we have to rewrite this or rewrite that now. You shrug your shoulders and say, “Okay, relax, we’ll figure it out.” Because you’ve actually handled things that have had real stakes. (Neely laughs) You’ve handled multi-million dollar litigations. I represented a guy on death row once.
I don’t have a problem with long hours if a younger writer hands in a script and I realize I have 48 hours to do a complete rewrite because the script isn’t where it needs to be. I worked insane hours when I was a lawyer. I’m not saying this just for me. I’m saying this for all lawyers who have really practiced and really worked for a law firm. Nothing really throws you in this business because you’ve all dealt with stuff that’s much more serious.
Neely: There’s a lawyer that I profiled a while back named Kevin Hynes. I’m hoping that he gets something because…
Nick: I know Kevin.
Neely: …I really liked his script. Kevin was in the Manhattan DA’s office. His father is the District Attorney for the borough of Brooklyn.
Nick: Yes. I know Kevin. We’ve spoken on the phone a few times and we’re trying to get together to have a meal.
Neely: Great guy and he’s given up everything to try and make a go of this.
Here’s the thing. Having credentials and having gone to law school helps you on a legal show, but what most people don’t realize, even though it’s a different kind of writing, law school teaches you how to write.
Nick: It teaches you how to write persuasively and get your point across…
Neely: …and in an organized fashion.
Nick: …concisely. Maybe not those lawyers who get into legislature and write statutes. (both laughing) That’s the exact opposite of a concise writer (Neely is still laughing). But, you’re absolutely right. When I’m sitting down to write, I always tell myself, “What am I trying to get across in this scene?” Not just the information, not just the “Oh. We found a clue.” But how is the character’s point of view changing by the end of the scene. What’s everything I want to get out of this scene and how can I do that in the most concise and entertaining way as possible? Law school does train you for that.
Neely: So how is that you know so much about insider training? That’s sort of a loaded question.
Nick: I don’t know a ton about insider trading and I sure didn’t before I started writing Fifteen Digits. But I did some research and it wasn’t that hard. I can also reach out to friends of mine who are investment bankers and guys who work at hedge funds; guys I went to college with who are really smart successful people. Guys and women. Guys to me is gender neutral. They gave me information and I did some research and it wasn’t that difficult. (Loudly) I’ve never insider traded if that’s what you’re asking. (Neely laughs very loudly).
Neely: Is there anything in here that’s “ripped from the headlines” a la “Law & Order”?
Nick: No, not really. It’s all made up.
Neely: Before we go any farther, we should talk about what Fifteen Digits represents.
Nick: It’s the fifteen digits of an account number to an off-shore account that accesses ill-gotten gains. There were five guys, the heroes of this story, our cast if you will, and each of them have three digits of that code so that none of them can access the money without the others. And that turns out to be the sticking point.
Neely: Your bad guys are really very bad guys in all sorts of ways. Jason Spade, the silver spoon partner’s son… any real life inspirations that won’t get you sued?
Nick: (laughing loudly) No. In my legal career, I have met the children of partners at law firms and the children of hedge fund managers and the like who have an air of entitlement about them, an air of no gratitude. They don’t understand how lucky they are to be where they are. If anything they’re resentful of it. So some of it was taken from that.
On the other side, when I practiced law, I worked with Supreme Court Justice Kennedy’s son and the guy couldn’t have been more of a gentleman. Spade was modeled after the Senators’ sons, so to speak, if I can quote from the song. But it’s not always the case.
Neely: Still, as unsympathetic as he is, you paint him very well. Ironic that he views his own life in the same light as the other characters.
Nick: Yeah. I was creating this really bad guy who was going to do some bad things and I had to give him a reason why. If he was just bad to be bad, then he’s a mustache twirler. So I did spend a lot of time with each one of the characters when they’re introduced to give them a backstory. I think that Jason’s backstory does shine a little bit of a light on why he is the way he is. For me, I feel that there were times when I almost felt sorry for him, even though at the end of the book you really shouldn’t like the guy. But there might be a slight twinge of, “Of course he turned out that way. Look at what he went through” – without giving away the book.
Neely: Well it’s a tribute to the way you painted his complexity. You’ve used a descriptor that I often use myself, which is “mustache twirler.” That kind of villain is very vivid but also very shallow. Here, you never like him but there are times when you understand him. But by understanding him, you have to question your own values. That’s what a lot of this book is. It’s a reflection back on yourself. What would I do?
Now, in reality, and you might disagree with this, Rich, the hero of the book is maybe the true villain because he’s played like an out-of-tune piano. He involves the others in Jason’s scheme. His life may have been sad but he was nurtured with love and he’s the one who betrays every value that the others were missing.
Nick: You’re absolutely right. And that’s why I think he’s a tragic figure and I intentionally made him that way. The only thing that’s sadder than a guy who never had anything is the guy who actually had something and it all goes wrong.
Neely: He doesn’t recognize it.
Nick: He doesn’t recognize it, but he doesn’t fail to recognize it because of stupidity or cluelessness; he doesn’t recognize it because he’s coming from a place of love. He wants a love that he’s been missing because of something that happened to him as a child. He has a deep-ceded fear, almost a phobia of being alone. As a result of that, he doesn’t realize how good he already has it. He’s already holding on with both hands to something really good, but he says to himself, “I gotta be a belts and suspenders guys. I gotta wrap my legs around this thing as well because if I just use my hands, it still might slip away.” As a result, he held so tight it all just disappeared and he lost everything.
Neely: As much as I loved the intricacies of the plot, what made Fifteen Digits stand out were the vividly drawn, disparate characters. I love how in novels (duh) you can explore back stories which in turn make the characters blossom further in front of you. It’s much more difficult in television where the expositional description is left on the page. To a great extent, in television, situation must determine the character growth. That is not to say that situation doesn’t enhance character growth in Fifteen Digits because it’s there in spades (I make it a point never to avoid cliché).
Nick: You couldn’t be more right. The characters in Fifteen Digits really do all come from different worlds. Television makes it very difficult at times to get into the back story of characters. You can differentiate a young writer from a veteran writer who’s figured it out in a TV or feature script by how they handle exposition.
If you read a script and someone is talking to a friend of theirs and he says, “Listen Johnny, you’re the best sharpshooter the Marines ever had. You won five gold medals at the Sarajevo Olympics; you know what you’re capable of doing.” My God! No one’s ever talked like that to a friend in their life like that. They’ve known each other for 20 years. Why would it be necessary to recap your pal’s credentials. It’s complete unnatural bullshit exposition. The way I describe that kind of dialogue, I say it makes my ears hurt. You have to avoid that when writing a script.
When writing a novel, you’re able to really get into things because you’re talking from the eye of god who’s seeing all these characters. From this third person narrative, you can talk about all the backstories of these characters and you’d better write better crap than what I just spouted out about the gold medals at Sarajevo. You don’t have to worry about that unnatural dialogue.
Neely: Did you have to make it Sarajevo? Now I’m going to have to look up the spelling (note: I looked up the spelling). Couldn’t you have used Lake Placid?
Nick: (laughing) Sorry. I just picked one of the Olympics. And, by the way, that’s one thing I don’t watch on TV – the Olympics. I’m a very patriotic guy but I don’t give a shit about luge (Neely cackles loudly)…
Neely: (still laughing) …how about the biathlon?
Nick: Exactly. Every four years I should give a crap about sports I never watch otherwise? And someone skiing and shooting? These are crazy sports and all of a sudden I’m supposed to care. Sorry. You can’t sell me on it.
Anyway, that’s the joy of writing a novel. You can avoid that awkward exposition and really get into the characters.
Neely: Interestingly, your main character and the one that drives the plot, Rich Mauro, wasn’t my favorite. That isn’t to say that he wasn’t vibrant, conflicted and complex, because he was. But the devil was in the details (again, another cliché and a bad pun) and it was your supporting cast that made this come alive. I’m not sure I can even choose among them because everyone was a wounded bird. Vicellous Green aka Vice was a charming petty thief with a massive set of responsibilities who was trying to dig himself out the honest way; Dylan Rodriguez, a former gang leader, endured a murderous beating in order to leave la vida loca for his wife and new baby; and Eddie, Special Ed, the “mentally challenged” supervisor of all of them, who had survived abandonment, abuse, and the knowledge that his mental challenges, what, in a less politically polite time was called retardation, made him different.
Eddie was my favorite…
Nick: He was probably my favorite too.
Neely: … I was just going to ask that. I think he may have been your best developed character. My heart melted at one point when Eddie, frustrated by his treatment at the hands of everyone else, shouted, “I may be slow but I’m not stupid!” It was a vivid portrait of a man who would never mentally reach adulthood and who was perfectly aware of his limitations.
(laughing) So who was your favorite character?
Nick: (chuckling) I do think Eddie may have been my favorite character. It’s strange, but I grew up in a time where on the playground, it happens even today, if a kid messes something up or even makes a joke, one friend will say to another, “Come on you retard.” And you didn’t even think at that time that you could be hurting someone; you didn’t think it was a derogatory term…
Neely: No, you knew it was derogatory, you just thought it was funny.
Nick: …Not until I was older, what it really meant. So I thought about a character who was mentally challenged. And at a lot of law firms, a lot of big companies, retarded, or rather mentally challenged adults - I still don’t know what the politically correct term is. I mean, retardation is a medical term, isn’t it?
Neely: I do think they use the term mentally challenged or intellectually limited (although both terms can be used in lots of different situations that don’t relate to IQ).
Nick: …where mentally challenged adults are hired at these big firms and they do fantastic, amazing work. I thought it would be interesting to have a character who was mentally challenged, who is phenomenal at his job collating the documents for this law firm and he gets pulled into this scam. How would he react? Why would he do it? And his reasons for doing it were really simple and complex at the same time. He had one goal and that was to go to a place that I don’t want to give away – maybe that had something to do with it. But I think maybe his other goal was that he just wanted to be like everybody else.
Neely: I think that’s it. I mean, he’s your character but…
Nick: …yeah, but sometimes I don’t know…
Neely: …well, that resonates.
Nick: But I believe that Eddie was very aware, not only that he was mentally challenged – he knew that – but I think he was very aware of how people looked at him. I think I said in the book, “He always knew that when people talked to him, they talked a little bit slower and a little bit louder and tried to enunciate a little bit more.” I think he was tired of it. I think he just wanted to be like everyone else. I really sympathized with this character.
Neely: He was an outsider among outsiders.
Nick: Yeah. Exactly! That’s a great way of putting it. I might steal that. I am going to steal that.
Neely: Be my guest.
Nick: He was an outsider among outsiders and that really sucks. It’s like when you’re the kid in the AV Club that everyone picks on. “Shit, man. I’m in the AV Club. Where do I have to go so that I don’t get picked on???” Eddie’s working in the basement of a Law Firm with a bunch of guys barely making minimum wage and they’re teasing him. That’s gotta suck. So he has his reasons for doing this too. To finally be accepted, to finally feel important and maybe gain a little bit of freedom – all things he never really had. I love that character.
Neely: Do you know any guys like this?
Nick: I knew workers who did that. I would sue the city of New York a lot when I was an ambulance chaser and I noticed that the city has a lot of programs to hire the mentally challenged or people with disabilities. They were often some of the most efficient workers.
Neely: I had a background (at this point fairly deep background) working in the field of special ed. The first part of my career after getting my Masters at Washington U was working with the mulipli-handicapped. I always try to frequent stores that hire the handicapped and treat them with respect. Your portrayal of Eddie really resonated with me. I knew him…
Nick: I wanted to treat him respectfully. I’m glad he resonated with you. It means a lot that someone who has an expertise in that field would think it wasn’t a disrespectful portrayal because there are… well, look, I had to write it real. These guys are going to goof on him; they’re going to call him Special Ed because people can be assholes.
Neely: But Vice loved him!
Nick: You’re right. Vice loved him. When he called him Special Ed, he didn’t know any better. Rich wanted to protect him. Dylan did stand up for him at one point.
Neely: All your characters were damaged in different ways.
Nick: Yeah, and it’s difficult when you write… Look, John Grisham writes A Time to Kill, he’s got to write the voice of racists in that book. It doesn’t make him a racist but I’m sure it’s not comfortable. In various scripts, I’ve had to write pedophiles; I’ve had to get in the voice of rapists and murderers. It’s never fun. So when you’re writing guys who are goofing on a guy who’s mentally challenged, you have to stay within the voice of those characters.
Neely: Well what you accomplish, especially when the villainous character of Spade comes down and is vicious to Eddie, all of them, to a man, stand up for Eddie and make the reader (and Spade if he had any sensitivity whatsoever, which of course he doesn’t) understand that it’s Spade who’s retarded and not Eddie.
Nick: And Spade is emotionally retarded in the truest definition of retarded. He didn’t develop as much as he should have; his emotional development had retarded backwards.
Neely: If we talk anymore about plot or character points we’re going to give away too much. I think that everyone should go out and buy this book and have the same great time I did.
When did you know you wanted to write? Why become a lawyer?
Nick: Lawyers provide an incredible service to society and they’re important. I don’t want to crap on lawyers; it’s just not what I was supposed to do with my life.
I always just wanted to write. Honestly, I was probably clinically depressed, though I never went to a doctor to realize it. I remember one morning, my wife was getting ready for work. We had a tiny little apartment in New York; we had this one little bathroom and she was doing her hair and she came out, looking beautiful as always. She was a school teacher and she was on her way to work. She looked at me and I was still sitting on the couch, still in the boxers and T-shirt I had slept in the night before. I had been up for an hour and was sitting on the couch and hadn’t moved. I hadn’t put my suit one; hadn’t put my tie on; I hadn’t gotten my dress shoes on. I wasn’t ready to go to court. I looked up at her and she looked at me. Our eyes locked and I knew exactly what she was thinking and I just said to her, “It’ll get better,” meaning me. We’d been married about 3 years then and she looked at me and said, “Well it better.” What she basically was saying, without actually saying it, was “I love you but I’m not going to live the rest of my life with this freaking mess that’s sitting on my couch in his underwear who hasn’t moved in an hour; who can’t even get himself dressed for court anymore.”
That scared me to death because I love my wife. So one day I said to her that I just needed to write something. And she said to me, “So shut up and write something. It’s all you ever talk about.” We had a vacation planned over the summer and I asked, “What would you think if I took that week and we didn’t go away and I just stayed at home and wrote?” And she said, “If it’s going to get you to write something and actually do something about how miserable you are, then fine. Take the week off and go write.”
I had this big giant Gateway computer and it was set up on the kitchen table in our tiny little apartment. I came home from work that Friday and the next Saturday morning I woke up and by 6:00 a.m. I was writing. And I wrote all day Saturday, all day Sunday, that whole week, all day the next Saturday and Sunday… so nine straight days… and by that Sunday night I had finished my first screenplay.
I decided to submit it to the New York International Independent Film Festival which had a screenplay competition as part of the festival. I went on their website and it said “Don’t send us your screenplay. We get way too many. We can’t read them all. Send us a 150 word synopsis.” So I sent in a 150 word synopsis, waited and then a couple of days later, I get a phone call saying, “You know what? We really loved your synopsis, we’ll read the screenplay. No promises. Don’t call us, we’ll call you if we’re going to accept it.” So I sent in the screenplay and forgot about it. Then about a week later I get a phone call and they’re like, “Look, we only accept 25 screenplays into the festival. This year we’re going to take 26. To be honest, we already had our 25 screenplays picked but we loved your script so we’re going to accept it.” “Great! Thank you!”
So you go to the film festival and they tell you when you have to be there. Since I was a rube, I went out with my wife and we went to Nordstrom’s. I’d only been out of a law school a few years and had a lot of law school loans and debt, but I went and bought a suit I couldn’t afford; a new shirt I couldn’t afford; tie I couldn’t afford. And I got dressed up to go to this film festival so I would look nice and make a nice impression.
While I was there, I thought all the writers are so friendly. They were all coming up to me and talking to me about their scripts and giving them to me. Man these writers, they’re supposed to be my competition but they’re really going out of their way to talk to me. What wonderful people. And my wife looked at me and said, “They think you’re an agent, you idiot, cause you’re wearing a suit.” And I looked at them, saw what they were wearing, how I was dressed, and I got so depressed. I said, “Come on. Let’s just leave. I look like an asshole. I’ll hand in my script and we’ll go.” And she said, “No. You’re going to stay. You’re gonna talk to these people. You’re going to pitch them your script like you’re supposed to pitch your script.”
So you talk to these people from the film festival and you pitch them your script. All the judges say they can’t wait to read it. So you figure they say that to everybody. And I left the festival and I figured that’s the end of it. About a month later, I’m at my law firm late at night, working on a motion. I’m the only one left at the firm and the phone rings. I pick it up and it’s someone from the film festival. She said, “I just wanted to tell you first but we’re going to make the announcement tomorrow. You won ‘Best Screenplay’ of the competition.”
And again, because I knew nothing about the business, I said, “Oh that’s phenomenal! What do I win?” I thought I’d won a prize, at least screenwriting software or something like that. I’d written the script without screenwriting software. Over the nine days, I hit TAB TAB TAB TAB TAB every time I had to get into a character. I finished the screenplay doing that. It’s amazing how hard you can work when fear of having a life of misery is your motivator. And my only way out of not being miserable was if I could write for a living. So, again, I asked, “Do I win screenwriting software? Do I win some money?” And she said, “You win ‘your life’s about to change.’” I remember thinking that that was a little dramatic. After all, it’s just a film festival; it’s not a big deal.
But within a couple of days I got a phone call from someone at CAA who left a message. I never returned it because I didn’t know what CAA was. I didn’t know anything about the business (Neely laughs). They said they were an agency in Los Angeles. But people had warned me at this film festival to be careful because your name goes on a list and companies reach out to you and charge you like $300 to read your script and give you notes. Have you heard of these companies?
Neely: Yeah. There are a lot of people who do that and a lot of people desperate enough to pay for it. There are also legitimate people who do that but the trick is figuring out who’s legit.
Nick: I thought that CAA was one of those companies. Days later a friend of mine was over at the house and I was playing my messages. It was one of those old machines that played your new messages and then goes back and plays your old messages. And he hears the CAA message and says, “What the hell was that?” And I go, “I don’t know. Some bullshit company.” He goes, “Do you not know who CAA is? Call them back you asshole!” (Neely laughs pretty loudly) So I called them back, like 10 days later, almost 2 weeks later and talked to them and they told me how much they liked the script. Then they asked, “What else do you have?” I made the mistake of being honest…
Neely: …and saying, nothing.
Nick: Nothing. It’s the first thing I ever wrote. And they said, “Oh. Well we really need to see another sample.” I could tell already that if I had called them back they would have forgotten who I was in two days. Then a couple of days later, I got a phone call from UTA. They talked to me and said a few really nice things about my script and then asked me, “What else do you have?” It was a Friday, so instantly, within 3 seconds… actually in a third of a second… I had a million thoughts. One was, I can’t say nothing because that didn’t work last time. I can’t say I have another feature because I don’t have 9 days to write another feature. I’d better say a TV show because, even though I know nothing about television writing (or even film writing because I’d only written one script), I know that TV scripts have to be shorter. And I’d better say “The Practice” because I watched the show
“The Practice” was a world I knew. So I said, “I have a ‘Practice’ script that I wrote.” And they said, “Great! Can you email it to us?” I said, “You know what? I’m at work and it’s on my home computer. I have a really old computer and it’s trouble, why don’t I just send you a hard copy. I’ll overnight it over the weekend.” And they said, “Great.”
I walk into my boss’s office and I said, “Listen. I’m sick. I just threw up all over the bathroom.” So he said, “Alright. Go home.” I wasn’t sick but I went home. I got home around 4:00 on a Friday and sat down and started writing. I wrote like a madman. And by latish afternoon Saturday I had the script done. I ran to an overnight drop box and got it right in under the wire. They read it; loved it; and UTA signed me. Within a couple of months I was writing for “The Sopranos.” The guys from UTA are acknowledged in my first book, Slip & Fall because they changed my life but I switched over to Endeavor about a year and some change later because like everyone else in this business, I’m an ingrate.
That’s how I got into the business. It was a million to one shot and I just got lucky. To this day, that “Practice” script is one of the best scripts I’ve written because I wrote it from a completely fear-based perspective (laughing). I still have that script but I don’t know if it’s that script you read.
Neely: I’ll have to double check to see which of your scripts I read.
Nick: It was called “The Infant Plaintiff.” Camryn Manheim’s character decided to have a baby from a sperm donor she didn’t know. Her child, in utero, had a medical issue and they needed information about the child’s medical history. She only had half the equation so she had to find out who the father was. But it was sealed information. Of all the people who could help her, and I’ve forgotten the name of the character but it was the short bald prosecutor. Who was the actor?
Neely: Jason Kravits (and won’t he be pleased by the description).
Nick: Yes that’s him. Great actor. So of all the people, he’s the one who wound up helping her because it turned out that he had a niece who was adopted who had a medical issue and it affected him personally. It was a nice little script.
There was also a horrible NAMBLA storyline in there too, where the parents wanted to bring a civil suit against NAMBLA because a guy who raped and murdered their child… what they found on his computer when they searched his home, that he had been looking at NAMBLA about an hour before he went and kidnapped the kid. The parents said that NAMBLA had worked him up to it. So it became a whole freedom of speech versus whatever kind of thing. It was a really gross storyline.
Neely: I’ll have to look and see if that was the script, (Note: after looking on the database, the scripts that Nick’s agents submitted were “The Sopranos” and a “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”) but those are terrific story ideas.
Nick: “The Practice” really helped me because I knew the show so well. I told you, I loved the show. I knew the characters and I knew I could get their voices because I had seen every episode, some of them multiple times. I used to wait for that show to come on.
Neely: You need to use Jason Kravits in something. (laughing) It’s the least you can do after that description.
Nick: He’s a really good actor. I’ve seen him walking around New York once or twice and I’ve always wanted to stop him and tell him, “You got me into the business because I wrote a great storyline for your character.”
Neely: You know what? If you see him again, you should tell him. He’s a really good friend and he would love that.
Nick: When he got killed, that was a shocking moment. It killed me.
Neely: Metaphorically speaking, that killed him too.
Nick: I don’t see him in enough now-a-days.
Neely: I know. So do something about it when you can.
Let’s talk some more about your writing process. The art forms are so incredibly different and there has been very little successful cross-over from fiction to television/film and vice versa. How was your approach and preparation for the book different than your approach to writing a pilot?
Nick: It’s longer (both laugh). I have to block out a lot more time for a book than for writing a pilot. But the truth is, when I sit down to write a book, I feel so much freer, that I feel like it takes me less time than it does to write a pilot even though I can write a pilot in a matter of weeks. A book will take me several months, but I don’t have to worry about what it will cost; I don’t have to worry about where it will be filmed; I don’t have to worry about page count. I just have to worry about making it entertaining. And it’s so liberating that my process, and I know it might sound corny, is to just be joyful and type. And I just sit there and type and go back and edit and tweak. But it’s so freeing that the whole process is a pleasure from beginning to end.
Neely: Do you block out the characters? Do you structure it? Do you work from an outline?
Nick: With pilots I always work from an outline. I do it on a white board. Before that I always sit down with a legal pad and jot down who I think these characters are. It’s really messy. I’ll draw lines and columns and I’ll tear it up and I’ll do it a little cleaner until eventually I know – these are my seven characters, these are who they are in a couple of sentences; these are their interrelations with each other. And I’ll have arrows going through – this is why this one doesn’t like this one and this is why this one’s really secretly in love with that one and so on.
I’ll do the same thing with the characters in a book. But then with a book I’ll put down the big huge bullet points, maybe twenty notations of what’s going to happen throughout that book. I know I have to get from point A to point B and C and D. And while I’m writing it, I start to realize, “Oh. I kind of need to fill this in, or this is missing. If I’m going to get from point A to point B or from point F to G. A to B is easy. The first couple of chapters are always easy. But to get from F to G, I’m going to need to figure out a way to bridge that distance. Something is going to happen in between because in G he’s got a different mindset and I need to show that what happened in between created that mindset. Oh, he saw a fight; he saw somebody get hit by a car; he saw whatever happens, or he overheard a conversation. I hate using that “overhearing a conversation.” (Neely laughs) I shouldn’t use that as an example…
Neely: That’s a bit hoary, yeah…
Nick: I don’t think I’ve ever used that actually.
Neely: I think this is a good place to break. Let’s continue this next week with more of your story.
I want everyone to remember that Fifteen Digits lands in bookstores on Tuesday, April 24. And don’t forget to pop over to the Barnes and Noble at the Grove on Wednesday the 25th at 7:00 for the book launch party.