(Originally appeared in Scriptshark, March 2015)
by Cary Tusan
Every working writer has their unique story about how they broke into the film and television industry. There is no one way to get your foot in the door and stay there. No matter how much the landscape changes, it all comes down to the written word. We spoke with Cole Haddon, creator/writer of Dracula (NBC), who has Nottingham in development at Sony TV and two features (Dodge and Twist and Leviathan) in development at Sony Pictures, about how he got started.
Q: How did you get your first job as a working writer?
Haddon: I’d been struggling to get represented for some time. The scripts I was writing, all features, just weren’t getting the job done for me. They were too art house, I think. The market at the time was looking for new franchises, which hasn’t really changed. I thought, “Why not write a spec that proves I can do that? Why not reimagine one of my favorite books (and films) as a child into something for today’s audiences?” That was KING SOLOMON’S MINES. Turns out I was stumbling into the first moments of a new zeitgeist in Hollywood, because a few months later all anybody was talking about was “rebooting” branded literature (this, by the way, is how my TV series “DRACULA” would come about a few years later). I unknowingly became one of the only people talking about this stuff. That would soon change, but for a moment, I think I was a bit of a rarity. Three months later I sold an ARABIAN NIGHTS idea, called THIEVES OF BAGHDAD, to Warner Brothers. I think the sale was a product of dumb luck, some creativity, and a deep, honest passion for the source material.
Q: How did you get representation? What is key to know about finding that first rep?
Haddon: It was my KING SOLOMON’S MINES spec that first got me represented. QUATERMAIN, as it was called, impressed a manager I met through my future sister-in-law. We were at a party and he asked what I did. He then offered to read something. Nobody does this. I have no idea why he did this. And then he actually read the script. Again, that almost never happens. He went on to help me find my first agents, help me take the spec out to the town (it didn’t sell), and set up THIEVES OF BAGHDAD at Warner Brothers. As for what is key to finding that first rep, I get asked this all the time. There is no key except being prepared when dumb luck leads you to one. I know very few people who got reps in any way that another person could recreate. Like me. I was at a party. My future sister-in-law introduced me to a guy. He actually read me. That’s not exactly advice I can give to someone. That said, had I not put the work in beforehand, had I not been writing religiously, had I not been ready when I was asked for a writing sample, I’d probably still be an unemployed, aspiring screenwriter. That preparation is the key, if there is one.
Q: For those who want to get on a show as a writer’s assistant, what tips (do’s and don’ts) do you have for interviewing? What have you or your show looked for when hiring someone?
Haddon: I didn’t hire the writer’s assistant on “DRACULA”. Our head writer, Daniel Knauf, brought her with him. I did, however, help hire our entire writer’s room and can speak to that. In general, I looked for scripts that surprised me. Procedurals bored me to tears. Hospital shows, cop shows, obvious shows. Instead, I looked for people who wrote things that nobody else was. For example, Becky Kirsch: I was sent her spec pilot about an 18th Century New England woman locked up in an insane asylum. Nobody was going to make this series. Nobody would probably buy it. But it was wonderful. It was different. It showed me someone who was going to think outside the box. But the writing was also solid, traditionally structured, and so I knew she understood what the inside of the box looked like, too. Again, this isn’t exactly clear advice for how to get a job. What I’ll say is this: every writer has to stand on his/her creative instincts and writing talent, and that means a writing sample should make both of those things abundantly clear. You have to succeed or fail on these things because they are your most valuable possessions as a screenwriter. Write samples that speak to that, not samples that you think will get you hired. The latter ones almost never will.
Q: Each writer’s room is unique. So, what was your first experience like in the writer’s room on Dracula?
Haddon: The “DRACULA” writer’s room was a wonderful experience. I made several friends I’ll know for the rest of my life. That said, it was also jarring for me. I came in as a creator. A producer. I hadn’t worked in television before. My experience was as a feature writer, and that’s a very solitary game. Suddenly I was contending with multiple other personalities. This quickly revealed strengths and many more weaknesses on my part. I think I weathered it well enough, but it was daunting for the first month or so. Playing well with other writers can be hard, since we’re so used to spending time alone in our own heads. But it’s a valuable skill set to learn, trust me. Essential if you want to work in television.
Q: When it comes to staffing a show, what was that process like for you? Did the unique subject matter and genre of the show play a factor in assembling the writers?
Haddon: I covered a lot of this a couple of questions ago, I think, but you’re right…the unique subject matter did also play a factor in assembling the writers. I’ll use women as my example here. I knew from the start I would be uncomfortable with any room that wasn’t equitable in gender composition, but for “DRACULA”, it was essential, more so than some other shows I think, that women, women of very different perspectives, were represented in that room to help me realize my ambitions for my show. Romance, sex, Victorian repression, a young woman struggling with her realization that she isn’t straight, another young woman trying to intellectually establish herself in a Men Only academic world. These weren’t conversations that I felt most male writers could contribute much to. And no single woman could cover them all either. Finding female writers who could come at this heightened period world from all sides was essential.
Q: How was the transition for you from film writer to TV writer? What spurred that decision?
Haddon: The transition was an easy one, since television allows me to use one of my strengths as a writer that is otherwise useless to me in features – world-building. In features, you’re only worried about what’s happening in a very contained window of time. Building out a world that we’ll return to over and over isn’t very useful to the development process if the number-one priority is simply to get one movie made. What’s happening around the corner, in the other room, on that other world, is irrelevant. I want to know what’s happening there, though. As for what spurred the decision to move into television, more dumb luck. I was asked about the character of Dracula during a general feature meeting. But not for films, for television. Almost as an aside. I reacted negatively at first, thinking the character didn’t suit the medium because of his villainous nature, but a few days later I figure out my way into the character. I had every intention of eventually moving into television, just not so soon. And then I was there. Dumb luck. It’s essential in this business.
–Thanks for reading.