Interview with Screenwriter - CJ Walley

CJ Walley is a Screenwriter and founder of Script Revolution. He has had several of his screenplays made into films, frequently collaborating with director Shane Stanley

In this interview, CJ discusses his journey to screenwriting, the writing process and shares advice for upcoming screenwriters. 

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How did you start your screenwriting career?

I’m very open that I got into screenwriting in the most non-romantic way. I started later in life, in 2012 (I was thirty-two, which now feels young), and I suffered a crisis along with a breakdown. Writing was supposed to be my way out, which was crazy because it only drove me more inward. That said, I think many of us creatives turn to the written word and fiction as a way to escape and help process our situation.

The thought of me writing felt absurd as I’m a dyslexic who couldn’t pay attention in class. My English teacher, toward the end of high school, strongly disliked me and even said she’d never forgive me when I flunked a B-grade in my GCSEs here in the UK. The thing is, while screenwriting felt like a strong pivot at the time, I had spent most of my childhood and teen years making up stories for other people’s entertainment - I just never wrote anything down because it felt so hard to write by hand and I was ashamed of all my typos. You hear that a lot with people who discover a creative passion when they’re older find it was always there in some obscure form.

My big break was when multi-Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Shane Stanley was directed to a blog of mine. He liked the tone, read some more of my articles and thought, “Hey, I like the way this guy thinks. I wonder if his scripts live up to his opinions?”. That resulted in him visiting my website and falling in love with a script of mine called For Your Dreams (the second script I’d ever written). He effectively came out of retirement to work with me on this new project. That was a feature film called Break-Even and we’re now moving into our third feature film collaboration with me as a producing partner. 

I’d spent years telling myself the idea of some big-time producer discovering you and whisking you off to Hollywood was a fantasy. Then that’s pretty much what happened to me when those Airbus 380 wheels touched down at LAX. We’re best friends now and speak daily. The dream is real.

Describe your own writing process from idea to final draft?

I’m a real history and documentary nerd, so my inspiration comes from true stories, theories, and legends. That’s usually where my concepts and characters develop from and gives them some basis in reality. This often merges with real people I’ve met throughout my life as people fascinate me, and I love to learn about them and their backstories.

Then it’s a case of listening to my vast libraries of eclectic music to fire up my imagination while taking notes as various moments come to mind. I’m also a big believer in exploiting the hypnagogic state (the transitional state from being awake to falling asleep), which George Miller is known for when developing his Mad Max films. Therefore, I can sometimes be found lying on a bed or on a sofa with my eyes closed, working my hardest LOL! What I am very hesitant to do at this stage is put anything too conclusive down in black and white. I’m trying to trigger new ideas, not solidify restrictive ones.

I have a structured writing process heavily focused on pre-writing because I like to keep things as organic and flexible as possible. I “draft”, so to speak in the form of what’s known as “scriptments,” a hybrid between a treatment and a script, and effectively sketch the story out as bullet points and fill in detail as I go. This way, I can 100% focus on what’s important - the moment - without worrying about where I’m going - and as a result, my voice shines. 

Trying to fill a blank sheet of paper with refined prose and no real direction can easily lock us into a compromised paralysis where we’re hitting the brake and the accelerator at the same time. We can go anywhere we want but don’t know the next step to take. Writing in fear is terribly inefficient and a miserable experience that will result in mediocre results. I’m really proud of my process, which results in what’s effectively a final draft on the first pass. After that, it’s just polishing. 

I’ve detailed a lot of my process, which I call “Turn & Burn” and share it online as a free guide, also on my website Script Revolution, hoping it helps others enjoy their writing more while getting better results.

How did you sell Your Scripts?

I’ve not actually sold a spec script. I’ve optioned one, I’ve had offers, and I pulled a sale at the eleventh-hour once only because re-writing it would have been harder than starting afresh with something new. I have gotten multiple assignments off the back of my specs however and I feel that’s how the industry is now. Many say, “the spec script is dead,” and while that’s hyperbolic, it’s based on a lot of truth.

It makes far more sense for a filmmaker to have something bespoke written for their specific needs in the voice of a writer they admire than buy into a script that needs to be butchered into something they can make work and hope does well. I like to write pulpy dialogue-heavy female-led thrillers that feel very cultish. There’s a limited market for that, so I’m employed to take my gritty tone and apply that to more mainstream ideas. As a producing partner highly incentivized by a film’s performance, I respect market demands and want results. Therefore, I write specs for personal pleasure and artistic values while my assignment work merges that with the harsh reality of business. That’s a rewarding and fulfilling balance.

I got here by focusing on my craft for years. And I mean the whole craft from the academic thinking on storytelling to the history of Hollywood to how the business works to the meaning behind art itself. I dedicated a lot of time to writing short scripts and giving those away to aspiring filmmakers, which was like a boot camp on turning stories around and seeing what appeals. That taught me a lot about subjectivity and gave me all the validation I needed to double down on my voice. I also did a lot of blogging which is such a powerful way of networking online. I didn’t really query, enter competitions, or chase people. Instead, I put my true self out there, warts and all, and let those that align with me reach back out.

Getting into someone’s inbox or social media feed at an emotional level can be so much more powerful than catching them during drinks at a festival. A lot of this led to me creating the platform Script Revolution.

What is Script Revolution?

I could not bear watching so many creatives giving up on themselves because their hope and belief in themselves became diminished by how hard it can be to break in. From 2012-2015, I saw more and more predatory services startup designed to exploit people’s hope and acting as expensive gatekeepers into the industry. I knew somebody needed to step in and offer some sort of refuge where any screenwriter can list their material for free, get exposure, not be constantly hounded to spend money, and simply get back to doing what they love - writing.

In 2016, I realised nobody else was going to do it. Therefore, I pushed my web development skills to the limit and created Script Revolution. It is a free script listing website that’s open to all screenwriters and filmmakers. Filmmakers love it because it’s organic, rewards them for digging deep if they want to, and they know financially vulnerable writers (who often have the best stories to tell) get a fair shot. This isn’t some elitist list of curated content by privileged people who can pay their way to the top. It’s real. It’s gritty. It’s what art is supposed to be. When writers find Script Revolution, they often tell me that they’ve finally found a home.

Writers are seeing success too. Not the kind of huge deals you see coming out of the studio system, but the kind of nibbles that kick off careers in tight indie teams who will stay together for a lifetime. There are writers on Script Revolution who’ve been trying to break in for two decades who’ve suddenly sold scripts after joining. There is a paid membership tier for those who want to contribute something back to the site, film industry brands do too. Thus those paying members who are known in the community as “Rockstars” get a load of discounts on top of additional features, meaning they can actually save more than they spend. It’s a win-win situation. Artists supporting artists.

What advice you would give to students hoping to pursue a screenwriting career?

Again, I tend to go against the grain, so this may be a little jolting; I think there’s a lot to be said for following the path of least resistance. It’s too easy to adopt a corporate mindset focusing on flogging oneself in the hope to become noticed and financially rewarded. The creative arts don’t work that way, and it’s one of the reasons why so many experienced filmmakers stay out of the corporate side of Hollywood ( that produces a lot of the design-by-committee crap people are tired of). 

Nobody is hiring on the basis of word count and hours worked per week. Producers aren’t looking for artists who are living in fear and waiting to do exactly what they are told. If you lean heavily into what you love and embrace that indulgence, the motivation will come with it. I’m busy every day until midnight with writing, producing, networking, and Script Revolution, but it doesn’t feel like work. It’s our role to explore, to be rebellious, to be childish. Seeing the creation of art as something playful is incredibly liberating and infectious to others. The happiest writers out there are the ones who, regardless of their career status, are having fun writing.

So, I say, flip the script in your head. Dare to be like your heroes and charge headfirst into what others may call dumb, even if it pisses people off (hell, especially if it pisses people off!) wear it as a bright shining badge of honour because that’s the role your universe has chosen for you. There is absolutely no law that states that you have to take screenwriting, filmmaking, or life itself too seriously, so be the boldest version of yourself and watch how that builds an audience eager for more.

If you are a screenwriter check out Script Revolution.

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