Sean Collins-Smith is a former midnight crime journalist, journalism professor, and Bruce Springsteen addict from Richmond, Virginia. So he was Born In The USA. He’s always wanted to write for television and grew up watching the magical whimsy of Joss Whedon and the hyper verbose stylizations of Aaron Sorkin. Between covering crime in the back of a news van at 2:30 a.m. and working 16-hour days, He placed as a finalist in the Austin Film Festival’s Pilot competition that year with his first script, End of Life. His second pilot, Lifers Anonymous, helped Sean win the ISA Fast Track Fellowship, which connected him to his current manager, Jewerl Ross. He is listed in the ISA Top 25 Screenwriters To Watch to watch in 2019. Creative Screenwriting Magazine asked him about his writing journey.
Describe your unique personal and professional background and the specific project that attracted ISA interest?
I grew up and spent my entire life in Richmond, Virginia. I come from a town and a family steeped in diversity. My mother is black, my father white, and the college I attended and later taught at was a melting pot of religions, ethnicities, and ideas.
I double majored in journalism and cinema at Virginia Commonwealth University. A year after graduation, I entered their graduate school program to study Multimedia Journalism. From there, I started working at Richmond’s NBC affiliate, WWBT, as a midnight crime journalist and began teaching as an adjunct at VCU.
But in the background, there was still this love of film and television! The cinema program I’d enrolled in was very writing focused, and I learned the basics. But what, practically, could I do with that in Richmond, VA? I decided to download all the pilot scripts for TV shows I’d most admired over the years – Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Firefly, The X-Files, LOST – you name it, I probably read it. It gave me an education that I think no textbook can. I learn much better and faster from reading a produced piece of art than reading how someone else thinks that art came to be.
From there, I started writing my very first pilot script. It took two years, wasn’t that great and I only entered it into one contest. It was super educational because it taught me a lot of what I didn’t know about myself. How was I most efficient in writing? Should I plan everything out meticulously, wing it, or a mix of the two?
My next two pilot scripts, End of Life and Lifers Anonymous, were written over a period of 18 months between 2017 and 2018. Both scripts started racking up different finalist rankings and awards, and it was those two pilots which won me the International Screenwriters Association’s Fast-Track Fellowship. I won several more awards that summer and fall, and in December the ISA contacted me to inform me that I’d made the Top 25 writers to watch.
Why did you decide to become a screenwriter above all other careers?
I grew up watching films and TV shows that had a huge impact on me. The West Wing made me want to be a smart, empathetic, fast-talking problem solver. Angel, Buffy, and Firefly made me want to create whimsical, sarcastic narratives with heart. The Leftovers and LOST showed me that mystery could speak to the truth of why humans do what they do. And Breaking Bad and Mad Men showed me what true artistic dramas look like in the golden age of television.
After a while, I thought: why can’t I create that? Why can’t I put something on the screen that has people hanging on every word, and still sitting shocked, in contemplation, when it’s over? Eventually, I came to the conclusion that not only could I do that, I really, truly wanted to. I had to.
What personal qualities do successful screenwriters need to make it?
I say this as someone who hasn’t made it yet. I have a manager, which is a big, big step, but I’ve yet to sell anything. And I’ve only lived in Los Angeles since December 2018. But, what’s helped me in the last few years as I’ve written multiple pilots and won a varying degree of awards, has been to stay even-keeled. I’m an emotionally balanced person, and that extends to successes and failures. If I win an award or make it to the next round of something, I’m genuinely happy, but I don’t consider it a be-all, end-all. In that same vein, I’m not overly disappointed when something doesn’t quite connect like I hope it does.
I have writing friends who have admitted to me that they feel like absolute failures if a screenplay or short story either loses in a competition, or doesn’t get published, or receives a “pass” from a producer or manager. It can lead to depression, anxiety, self-doubt and writer’s block. I understand that feeling of failure and have felt it many times myself. I try not to invest too much energy into the happiness or dejection that comes in the wake of my scripts because I fear the moment when the pendulum swings the other way, and trust me, it always swings the other way. “For every action, there’s an equal and opposite reaction,” as it were.
The other quality I think is helpful is to always be thinking about the next thing. Whether it’s the next act, the next script, the next episode or the next pitch, keep those ideas churning. Scribble them down. Pitch them to significant others. If something interesting, or exciting, or odd, or unforgettable happens to you or someone you know, scribble that down, too. You’d be surprised how many ideas I’ve put into my scripts have come from anecdotal moments that I’d fail to recall if I hadn’t written certain things down in my iPhone.
What is your winning script and why did you choose to write it?
The ISA recognized both End of Life and Lifers Anonymous, which were written out of vastly different circumstances.
End of Life is my take on the hitman genre. I loved movies like Grosse Pointe Blank and Collateral growing up, and I think living a criminal life is inherently fascinating on so many levels. But what really connected me to write this story on an emotional level was watching my grandfather die from cancer. He was diagnosed with mesothelioma, and after a brief remission, it returned. He eventually entered hospice care. I think what hit me most during this whole process wasn’t just the mortality aspect – after all, death is never easy – but not having a choice in how you leave this world.
Suicide, especially assisted suicide, is a very taboo topic in many parts of the world, and it got me thinking: what if you could hire someone to end your life for you? It would be completely illegal, and almost certainly unethical, but you’d finally have control over your departure. From there, I formed a narrative around a guy who does just that: plans his death step-by-step with his team.
Lifers Anonymous was written in the days and weeks following End Of Life’s success on the competition circuit. I’d just written this thing surrounding a man, so I wanted to venture into what was, for me, unknown territory: writing something with a female lead. I’d had an idea about a woman who wishes for immortality in a state of drunken disbelief and then lives to regret it for the rest of her life. I always thought the worst thing about living forever would be being alone…no friends, no family, and no links to your own humanity. Mortality has a way of fueling our desires, our ambitions, our purpose – what if none of that existed?
And then I thought: there’s no way only one person could make that mistake. So what if there was a group of Lifers who got together to cry on each other’s shoulders?
How many drafts did you write before being accepted into the ISA Top 25 list?
I think both scripts had maybe two total drafts. I tend to be very, very stringent about editing as I write. I’ll write 8 pages, read them, cut half a page, reread them, cut another page, change dialogue around, and then proceed with the next 8, and so on. I’ve seen screenwriters preach about how inefficient this is, but it’s worked wonders for me. Because of that process, I usually only end up writing two drafts of something before I submit it anywhere.
What did you learn with each draft?
Looking at something with fresh eyes is a refreshing thing. Not just with drafts, but just revisions in general when I’m mid-draft, I think I learned so much. First, I have a tendency to overwrite a scene. Maybe it’s too long by a page, or half a page, but whatever it is, I’ve started applying a sort of mental yellow light if I instinctually feel like something is going on for too long.
Second, I’ve learned that sometimes I’m working out someone’s backstory on the fly, and it’ll come out in obvious and stilted ways in the dialogue. That usually results in me going back and reworking a certain scene so it’s not as on-the-nose.
What inspires your imagination?
Original ideas, or familiar ideas presented in original ways, really inspire me. First, from a critical point of view, they’re just a joy to watch. Second, they’re proof that originality isn’t dead and gone. For instance, apocalyptic stories aren’t exactly a new idea. But I can’t tell you how much joy I get in watching Wall-E and Mad Max: Fury Road. Talk about unique and diametrically opposite visions!
I’m also inspired by stories I read in the news. I can’t remember who, but there was a horror director who essentially said, “If you want to know where I get my ideas, just take a glance at the front page of any major newspaper.” I love that. I have a script that just became a finalist in Screencraft’s Pilot Launch, and it’s called The Secret Life of Inbred Mutants. It’s about an inbred family living in the West Virginia woods who own a business. It may come as a surprise that it’s pretty much my response to Donald Trump’s presidency. It’s definitely the weirdest thing I’ve ever written, and you don’t really have to be up to date on current events to be swept up by it. But, for better or worse, it wouldn’t exist had Trump never been elected.
Do you have a preferred genre you write in?
When it comes to genre, I’m all over the map. I’ve written four complete pilots over the last two years: End of Life (crime drama), Lifers Anonymous (grounded fantasy), Secret Life of Inbred Mutants (horror comedy) and a sci-fi pilot called Bound.
Three are 60-minute pilots, the other is 30 minutes. As far as themes, I’ve found that death and loss definitely inform a lot of what my characters endure. But more than themes and genre, I’m first and foremost seeking out that originality I mentioned earlier. If it can be kind of fun and kind of original, I’m usually all in on it.
How do you train and improve your writing craft?
I’m always reading more screenplays. I saw Hereditary earlier this year, and I remember thinking two things: this is some crazy sh*t, and I can’t wait to get home, download this screenplay and read how hell he wrote this thing! That film blew me away, and the fact that I can read his vision on the page is awesome.
I’m also reading screenplays that aren’t produced. Whether it’s something a friend wrote or something that’s up against one of my scripts in a contest, I’ve found reading un-produced material to be super educational as well.
Do you have any mentors, heroes/ heroines?
I’ve got a few mentors in the industry. One I met at the Austin Film Festival – he’s an Oscar-nominee and a show-runner for multiple TV dramas. Another I met at the Atlanta Film Festival at the Screencraft Writer’s Summit – she’s also a show-runner and just signed an overall deal with a big TV studio.
I mention these two in particular because I’d highly, highly recommend attending festivals if you happen to place in any of them. I can tell you personally that I hesitated on going to both of them, because plane tickets, hotels/AirBnBs and such can all add up and be costly. But my connection with those two mentors, in particular, made the whole trip worth it. Since meeting them, I’ve texted and emailed them both with questions, seeking advice and asking for fast reads on my material.
One of my writing heroes is Vince Gilligan. I love the trajectory of his career – landing on The X-Files, writing some of their best episodes, then going into Breaking Bad a few years after X-Files ended. I also love that he’s from Richmond, Virginia – my home for 31 years – and was discovered while living on the east coast, much like my manager discovered me.
Now all I have to do is write one of the greatest TV shows of all time and we’ll be on equal footing!
What advice do you have for screenwriters wanting to make next year’s ISA Top 25 list?
Keep writing. I know it’s cliché, but boy is it the best advice I can give you. I won the ISA Fellowship with two scripts. On top of that, managers, producers, agents, showrunners, executives – they all have one question, and one question only: “What else you got?” And the worst thing you can say is, “This is it.”
What is something that few people know about you?
I can recite the Gettysburg Address from memory. Granted, that’s not a useful skill in the slightest, which explains why not many people know about it. But still…