Reiss Clauson-Wolf and Julian Silver
Making it in Hollywood
- by Mike Goemaat
- October 7, 2015
- Going Viral Hollywood International Film Sales Los Angeles Production Assistant Screenwriting Tony Hale Writers
- Interview: The Working Life
Reiss Clauson-Wolf (2013) and Julian Silver (2012) are graduates of Wesleyan University living in Los Angeles and striving to carve out screenwriting careers in the film industry. Right now, they are developing independent creative projects while working full-time industry jobs.
This interview took place on April 1, 2015.
MIKE: What was the inspiration to move out to Los Angeles?
REISS: For me, it was something that I always sort of knew I wanted to do: screenwriting specifically. The more I talked to people about that and discussed those ambitions, one of the things that kept coming up was the idea that LA is the only place you can do that professionally with any sort of degree of success. I mean, New York is always an option because there is the television community and, in terms of production, the writer’s room. A lot of New York writers work for television shows, but the big screenwriters live in LA. So at the end of the day, the process of elimination drew me here. There was nowhere else I could do what I wanted to do at the level that I wanted to do it at.
JULIAN: That pretty much sums it up. I also felt the same way. I came out here maybe a year before Reiss did, but I also had the idea that I was going to be out here when I was fourteen or fifteen. So it wasn’t really a question. It was a matter of when. I came out here a month after graduating.
MIKE: That’s got to be a bit of a scary jump. Has it been daunting to move across the country to try and get your feet wet in an industry that is notoriously tough to break into?
JULIAN: You know, I was lucky in that when I was coming out here the guy that I was going to live with is from LA. So he was a real foundation for me in the sense that I could see the city and feel like I had family—his family took me in. And so it wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought it was going to be because I had a readymade group of friends and family. That’s the key part to being able to survive out here: not just coming for the work but being able to establish a life.
REISS: For me, I knew less people out there than Julian. The summer between my junior and senior year of college I did an internship in LA, and that provided me with a really good look at the city because instead of renting an apartment I couch surfed in thirty-two different places and got to see every side of the city. I was staying in places as varied as Pasadena, which is super far east, and Malibu, which is all the way on the west, also Santa Monica, and everywhere in between.
MIKE: Did you two know each other in college and did you know you each had the same goal for after graduation?
REISS: We knew each other in college. I think I knew that Julian wanted to be in LA. He was sort of a big actor on campus, and was known as such, so there were aspirations for Hollywood that were apparent, but we didn’t know that we wanted to write together. That came later.
JULIAN: We just played basketball together and we had a lot of mutual friends. I think when he moved out here I was pursuing acting and stuff like that (which I still am) and he and I had a chance to hang out and he stayed with me and my roommate for a while. When he moved out here permanently it was a natural progression from there.
REISS: It was one of those things where we had concentric friend groups so we knew each other and we hung out. And we both liked each other, I think? (I don’t know what Julian’s thoughts on me were in college). So we were in the same friend group, but we had never personally developed a connection except in group circumstances. When we got out here is when we became very close.
MIKE: What is your creative setup right now? Is it a writing partnership? Do you guys do separate things and then come together? How does it work?
JULIAN: It’s exactly that, we aren’t one of those writing pairs that divvy up character and plot—you know, there are some people who specialize and the way we work is we both split it. We both carry the same workload, we are allowed to speak our minds on anything, at any time, and we are going to listen to each other. So that is the way we like to work: we do the same thing. We try to do all our meetings together. It’s a true partnership.
REISS: Which differs, I suppose, from a lot of screenwriting partnerships. You’ll find that there are a lot of circumstances where one writer will take on the character, one writing will take on the dialogue, et cetera. There are different aspects that one is better at than the other so that will be their contribution, whereas for us we have ownership in every element of the writing process. We are pitching back and forth on characters, we are pitching back and forth on story themes, we are pitching back and forth on plot in such a way that it is a more collaborative process. And we feel it is good for writing when we have two sets of eyes looking at every bit of the material, as opposed to having one set look at one bit.
JULIAN: Right, because it’s like you are editing as you go. We’ll bounce things off. We are not precious about things, or we try not to be. It’s basically, “Does this resonate with you?” and if it doesn’t then we’ll probably move on. We’ll know when an idea catches because both of us will go “Oh there it is” and we’ll run with that.
MIKE: So it’s a much more organic process than if you split it right down the middle and decided that one would do this and one would do that. You are really able to work together on the same thing.
REISS: Exactly. It’s funny because it is instances like this where you see your college education coming into play with regards to writing. During this process, one of the things that Wesleyan taught me—and I’m sure Julian as well—is the interdisciplinary and interconnected nature of group work. When you are working together in a group you want each person to have ownership of the whole project as opposed to one individual element, and that kind of collaboration is the thing that has certainly strengthened our ability to work together.
MIKE: You actually just led into my next question. How have your academic backgrounds helped your careers in LA?
REISS: Certainly which school you go to is incredibly beneficial. It would be doing a disservice to Wesleyan to not admit that the alumni network that they have in LA has been incredibly helpful to both of us. It’s a community that makes it so you have a readymade group of people who have your best interests at heart and are already advancing in the industry and can offer advice in a way that not every college does. Going to Wesleyan gave us starting contacts, which really helped.
JULIAN: First of all, I studied Film and Psychology at Wesleyan, and I did a bunch of theater, so when I came out here those things helped inform my path already. I had the advantage—which I think is slightly different from Reiss—of knowing early what my path was and being able to build the support around it. So when I came out here, the Film department was very helpful in getting me in touch with people and then I built off of that. Not only did I have the knowledge base that a liberal arts education provides, but I also had this network of Film majors who were willing to connect me with people.
MIKE: When people think of working in Hollywood, one of the first things to come to mind is you need to know somebody. Has this idea of needing to know somebody come up since you’ve been there?
REISS: It’s interesting because I think needing to know somebody to get in, or get a foot in the door—I think that’s true not just in Hollywood. It certainly provides a leg up if your father or mother or family friends work in that industry. You’ll be better able to find what you are looking for because you’ll have a wider range of knowledge. I think it’s unfair though to say networking is necessary to get into the industry because there are plenty of jobs in Hollywood that don’t require you to know someone. But knowing people absolutely makes your job easier and perhaps lets you start ahead.
JULIAN: I agree that you need to know people in any industry, but what makes Hollywood different, and why it comes up so often in our industry, is that most people here have to look for another job every year, or every month, or every week. There is high turnover, which makes it so you almost need a constant contact to break in. In an industry like stockbroking, you need to know someone to get you in the door and you can make your way up that way. Here it is much more ‘oh you got that one job, great’ and then you need to find another job. You need to know so many people.
REISS: Yeah, the project-based nature of this industry means that no television show is working for more than five months a year. And depending on which elements (writing or acting), it is a different five months. You aren’t constantly working and you have some downtime, so being able to network from the beginning means having the ability to build genuine connections. At the end of the day, the people who are going to help you out are the people who really care about you, not the people who just had a good time at a party and enjoyed your conversation. It’s the ability to create lasting relationships.
MIKE: What do you guys do work-wise when you’re not writing? And does it get in the way of your work as writers?
JULIAN: My “day job” is international film sales. We take independent movies and represent them to international buyers. I’ll go to Cannes in May and sell indie movie rights in France, Germany, Japan, etc. At night we write together. We’ll meet up at a café and tackle a project. A lot of people want to write but they don’t treat it like it is a job. But Reiss and I set that time, we say we are going to meet and we meet. And then we find ways to keep ourselves afloat financially.
REISS: I am currently working as a night PA and have worked as a Production Assistant, Writers Room Assistant, and Directors Assistant. At a certain point most of the people in this town, in this business, want to be creative. They want to be a writer, a director, an actor or actress. For the first couple years you are out here, everyone says you need to have a means of income. You have to have a way to support yourself that will allow you to pay rent and allow you to keep eating. But at the same you need to keep plugging along with what you want to do, keep going on auditions or writing. I have a lot of friends who are waitering or bartending or doing that kind of thing, but still hold aspirations to be in the film industry. It is, again, another way you can meet people and form these lasting relationships with people in the industry.
JULIAN: To be honest, if I could give a piece of advice that I haven’t heard that often, it would be to really make the attempt, really try to work in the industry. You learn so much through osmosis that you wouldn’t learn doing something else. You just don’t learn as much in a non-industry job, and you want to constantly be building your knowledge base.
MIKE: Right, you are able to kill two birds with one stone essentially. You are working on your own projects but you are still working in the industry and gaining knowledge about whatever angles you are attacking it from in your daytime job.
REISS: Exactly. You’re taking whatever you are working on as your day job you and you’re bringing a certain perspective from it to what you are working on as your passion. Julian, because of working in international sales, now understands what can sell and what works internationally and why some projects win and some projects fail. It brings a certain business perspective that not a lot of writers have.
MIKE: If there is such thing as a typical workday for you guys, what would it look like?
JULIAN: It’s different for each of us.
REISS: A typical work day for me, because I’m currently working as a night PA. That means I’m going to work at 4 p.m. and ending work anywhere from 1 to 5 a.m. because I’m the night guy in the office for a television pilot. Basically my typical workday is wakeup at 11 a.m., write for 4 to 5 hours, converse on the phone with Julian for a couple calls, maybe take a meeting or two, and then go to work. It’s almost a reverse of what most people do.
JULIAN: It’s a wild world that he lives in. [Laughs]
MIKE: If one of you is operating on a more normal schedule and the other one is nearly its opposite that must be an interesting set of balls to juggle.
JULIAN: It is. We used to be on a more normal schedule, but this has thrown us for a loop. You find ways around it. We changed our writing style a little bit. For me, a normal day is I go into work at 10 a.m. and I leave at 6 p.m. and I go to my first thing of the night which—now that I’m not meeting Reiss—is usually a dinner or a meeting. Or I’ll have a rehearsal that takes me until 10 or 11 p.m. and then I go home and handle any loose ends. Could be drafts we need to look over or whatever setting up we need to do for the next day. And then the weekends, that is when we can get things done.
MIKE: There is that famous William Goldman quote “Nobody knows anything…… Not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for a certainty what’s going to work.” Has there ever been a moment where that has rung true for you guys?
JULIAN: I would say so. Goldman is right. Adventures in the Screen Trade was the first book I read when I came out here. And I said to myself, “This can’t be true, there has to be a way to at least figure some stuff out.” What I’ve learned the past three years is you can try and figure some stuff out, but if you think there is some sort of rule or “one path,” you are gravely, gravely mistaken. That tells you what you should take from that quote: You should be ready to follow any path. You don’t know what is going to work or what isn’t going to work, you just have to be open-minded and tackle whatever comes your way. There is another quote: “Opportunity is when luck meets preparation.” You always want to be prepared so you can get ready to get lucky. When Reiss approached me with the first script, who could’ve known that here would come the best friendship and working relationship I’ve had.
REISS: The Goldman quote—I would read it as “be cautious of the advice you get.” There is no direct path in this industry. It is exactly what Julian is saying, the question of can you be ready when something comes your way and will you have prepared enough to take full advantage of the opportunity? In that sense, Goldman has absolutely rung true so far. You learn what advice to trust, and as you put in more effort you start to trust some people more than others and start to believe the things that they tell you. It is a very true quote because of the nature of this business. There are people who know things and you can use their experiences to help you understand your own. But everything that everyone else is going through is also completely different.
MIKE: Every experience is different—I can definitely believe that.
JULIAN: That’s the fun of it, though. That is why I love this business.
MIKE: No one moves to LA for a predictable Hollywood experience.
REISS: Very true.
MIKE: So what are you guys working on right now?
JULIAN: We are working on a lot. We just finished this short that we wrote and produced, just this weekend. We are in the process of financing a feature. We just got our first tranche of money, and we are looking to shoot it in New York this fall. That was one of Reiss’ and my first pitch meetings where we came out of the room with a tangible gain.
REISS: It’s a cool thing to go into a meeting and come out with exactly what you were hoping to get.
JULIAN: And we are pitching a pilot around town, potentially a digital thing, potentially a cable thing. It is a half-hour comedy about millennials who graduate college and decide to make a viral video marketing company, which is the worst idea ever because it is an inherently impossible task.
REISS: I think the funny thing about Going Viral, which is the name of that project, is that it is a kind of microcosm of the industry. Our characters are purporting to be experts in something no one can be an expert in. Nobody knows why any specific thing goes viral. There is no methodology to make that happen, it just does, and they are trying to pretend that they are the ones who have that knowledge to make it happen all the time. It is kind of like being here. You fake it until you make. You act like you’ve been there and prepare the best you can and maybe one of these days it happens.
MIKE: Last question. Do you have a particularly “Hollywood” story that you think readers might get a kick out off?
JULIAN: Definitely, Reiss should go first.
REISS: Oh god, I don’t know if I’m allowed to say mine…
JULIAN: Just say “a big Hollywood director.”
REISS: Ok, so I was working for one of the biggest Hollywood directors—who shall remain nameless—as his assistant. My first day of work I came into the office, and I didn’t know him but I had heard kind of scary things about him: he’s very hard, he’s a perfectionist, always has your nose to the grind. I come into the office at 6 a.m. —I aimed to beat everyone into the office by two or three hours, and had heard everyone was arriving at 9 a.m.—and he was sitting at his desk, having been there for an hour. He says, “Not the best first impression, but I’m going to show you something.”
One of my duties was to make his breakfast every day. So he takes me into the kitchen and says, “I want a bagel. I want it lightly toasted. I like to have cream cheese on it. I want it to have lox, tomato, capers, and I want you to slice a banana into thin slices and lay it on the side, not on the bagel.” So I do this, lightly toast the bagel, put a layer of cream cheese, put on some tomato, some capers, and then slice the banana along the side. I bring it back into his office. I’m not allowed to speak when he’s working, so I place the plate next to him. He doesn’t look up from the machine so I stand there awkwardly. Eventually he turns and he looks at it for, I shit you not, fifteen to twenty seconds, not moving, just sort of angrily staring. Then he says, “Reiss, what does the phrase light cream cheese mean to you?” I said, “Well… less than heavy and more than none.” “Exactly,” he replies, “same with me.” He flips it upside-down, lathers it on the plate and says, “Go make that again.”
That was my first day of work on an Oscar-nominated movie. So that was bonkers.
JULIAN: For lighter fare, Reiss and I have the same birthday more or less, within 5 days of each other. For his birthday I got tickets to the Veep premiere. It was his first time on the Paramount lot and he turns to me at the screening and says “Oh my god, Tony Hale is right there. He’s my favorite guy in the world.” And for those that don’t know Tony Hale is Buster Bluth from Arrested Development…
REISS: Emmy Award-winner Tony Hale!
JULIAN: Yeah, he is amazing. Arrested Development is one of my favorite shows too. So I said “we have to get a picture,” and Reiss says, “No way.” The premiere started and we let it pass. Then we went to the after party and I see him at the bar alone and I say to Reiss, “Oh shit, this is the moment. This is happening.” I left Reiss and I went to the bar and it was just me and Tony Hale standing there. We order drinks and I say, “Hey man, love your work, kind of a crazy thing. My writing partner, it’s his birthday, would you be down to take a photo with us?” And he says sure! We started talking and Reiss came over and we talked for maybe 10 minutes. He introduced us to his wife and he goes, “You know what? I want to give you guys some advice. For you guys, if I could say one thing: enjoy the journey. A lot of people let it pass, and I don’t want you to let it pass, I think you are going places, so enjoy the journey.” And then he said goodnight and went off with his wife.
- Going Viral Hollywood International Film Sales Los Angeles Production Assistant Screenwriting Tony Hale Writers
Mike graduated from Dickinson College in 2014 where he majored in English and spent all four years playing with the ultimate frisbee team, the Jive Turkeys. He wrote his thesis about Christopher Nolan and the auteur theory, so you may not want to watch movies with him. Mike now lives in Arlington, VA and works as a Marketing Coordinator for DPR Construction.