Mentor Reflections: Chris Riley’s Advice for Screenwriters

In Featured, Industry Insights by Impact Admin

– By Sam Hendrian –

JPCatholic screenwriting professor Chris Riley’s professional career in film has included fourteen years in the script department at Warner Brothers and multiple screenplays, including the award-winning courtroom thriller After the Truth. He also wrote The Hollywood Standard: The Complete and Authoritative Guide to Script Format and Style, which is used as a textbook in film schools across the country.

But Professor Riley was once just a young kid with big dreams. How did he get his start in the film industry? A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of sitting down with him to ask some questions about his childhood, inaugural years in Hollywood, and his advice for aspiring filmmakers. The detailed answers he gave are in turns amusing and immensely inspiring:

When did you first realize you wanted to pursue filmmaking?

You know, when I look back, I can see the beginnings of it pretty early. As early as grade school, I was writing this comedy news show with some friends, and we had a puppet theatre we had made that was like a TV screen. And then we would pop up from behind the TV screen and read the news from our script.

Probably around junior high, I was really obsessed with getting a Super 8 movie camera… I got my dad to go in halves with me. And way back then it was $200, so I had to come up with a hundred bucks. I did a whole stop-motion thing with my train and the little toy soldiers, and the whole thing was underexposed, you could barely see the movement. But I didn’t think of that as something I dreamed of doing when I grew up.

So it was later when I first saw an actual studio television camera and just had this visceral, involuntary response, like “I have to get my hands on that camera.”… It was really a slow development of following these things that were interesting to me until I really in college found out that screenwriting was really the thing I wanted to do. … Screenwriting was for me then the way I could actually achieve what I wanted, which was that emotional experience that films gave me.

What were you like when you were college-aged? Would you say you were somewhat naive, or were you a sage in student’s shoes?

(laughs) Probably not a sage. I was probably pretty arrogant. I thought that I knew a lot and that the ability to answer test questions correctly was way more important than it actually is. I was trying to do what I think everybody here is doing, which is sorting out who you are, and you’re transitioning from childhood to the adult version of yourself.

So you’re making all kinds of discoveries, leaving some things behind, grabbing onto new things, deciding what you want to keep from childhood. So I was doing all of that. I was really serious about getting a good education, preparing myself for the life ahead, but I was also trying to figure out like socially how to relate to other people. I wasn’t good at that.

So I was discovering friendships and how to talk to people about things like your inner life and how you feel, kind of emerging from the dark ages of my junior high and high school years, I would say. They were dark ages socially. I was really an intensely lonely kid.

That was a big part of what movies touched in me. They revealed other people to me and helped me have an understanding of the secret inner lives of those characters. And I understood that like, “Oh, those represent real people.” But all of that was kind of a mystery to me. So college was like the first rays of sunlight breaking through those dark clouds. So I loved that. I had a really great time in college.

What was your first introduction to working in Hollywood, and how long did it take you to achieve a solid footing there?

It took about a year from arriving in Los Angeles to when I got that first industry job. So first it was just a lot of encountering closed doors and discovering that my local experience didn’t impress anybody in L.A. And then about a year into our time in L.A., the opportunity opened up for me to work in the script department at Warner Brothers. So that was my first foot in the door, and then that job, which was supposed to be a month-long temporary assignment, ended up leading to a 14-year stint at Warner Brothers.

Kathy and I graduated in December, got married January 1, and then by the end of January, we lit out for Hollywood. We just took all of our wedding gifts, put them in a U-Haul trailer, and started driving West, not really knowing anything about what we were doing, which was probably important not to know. And in a pre-internet age, it was hard to find out anything, it was hard to find anybody. So we were really wandering around in the dark trying to learn how things worked. This was 1983. But at that point, we knew we wanted to work in Hollywood and film & television.

And I think the most important idea I took from my whole college experience was instead of working in the sequestered Christian media world, which was just starting to develop, we felt like our calling was to work within the Hollywood film & television industry and make our contribution there. And that was a really foreign idea to me. That wasn’t something that was really talked about at my school. People tended to go into either local TV or radio, or into religious broadcasting. But there was one professor who kind of just made this offhand statement that he thought maybe we ought to go on the inside of existing companies rather than attacking from the outside.

I think that’s not a foreign idea to you. We embrace that idea [at JPCatholic], not as the only path, but as a legitimate path. But that was a brand-new idea in my mind, but I really responded to it and felt strongly that “Yeah, that’s what I’m built for.”

And so coming into L.A. was a response to that idea. We didn’t know how we were going to do it or how we were going to get into one of those companies, but that was always the goal once we graduated and knew we were going to leave home behind and come to California.

What advice would you give to your college-aged self? With years of experience now under your belt, are there any things you wish you had done differently?

I certainly would have bought a copy of The Hollywood Standard right away (grins facetiously).

I feel like I don’t have a good answer to that question. It would have been nice to have learned faster, but I don’t know if I could have or if I should have. Maybe everything that I teach is kind of an answer to that question. I want to pass on to the students here all the things that I’ve learned since I was in college.

I don’t think of it in terms such as “Man, I wish I had known all this,” but it is a very conscious attempt to say, “You know, I want to shortcut your learning curve so that you can learn it faster.” And with that, I have a little bit of concern that by changing the way that you learn it from the way I learned it… I learned it stumbling around in the dark, and so each morsel that I found was such a treasure.

That’s very different from, “Oh, that was last Tuesday’s lecture.” And so I don’t know what the impact of that is, to get it that way. I worry that it’s like training someone for a marathon via a series of lectures, and that maybe something is lost in that approach.

On the other hand, my hope is no, what’s going to happen is that it’s at least possible for students to take what they receive, and then their struggles will be on top of that. They’ll struggle for new things and so be able to go further. … So nobody’s going to miss the struggle. But maybe 5 years of struggle instead of 14. I’m very much in favor of that.

What is one thing every young person should do who wants a film career in Hollywood?

I think the most important ingredient is sustained engagement with this process of growth over a long time, I think it has most to do with spiritual and emotional health, and gaining the ability to have the resilience to keep going, to bounce back from disappointments, to absorb the hard notes when you had thought you had nailed that draft and someone informs you that you did not nail that draft. (laughs)

Because the temptations are so strong to give up or to grow bitter. And I think that knowing where your worth comes from is so important, because it just so strongly feels like your worth comes from people’s response to your work. And so if there’s an alternative to that, that’s really important to latch on to – having relationships in your life that help sustain you and give you a place to do meaningful service to other people when maybe your work is being rejected.

So you need the skills and the knowledge and the connections, but all of that is kind of downstream of you just need to be able to stay on your feet long enough for all that stuff to happen. So if I had to choose one thing, that’s what I would choose. And the answer that I have found to that is Jesus.

And for me it has to be a real, life-giving, ongoing, day-to-day relationship. It can’t just be an idea or something that we talk about. Because it has to nourish me through those deserts when nothing else is nourishing me. And then that’s not just like me in a mystical place. It’s often: I have this wonderful wife who is a conduit of God’s love to me more often than anyone else. And I’ve got children, and I’ve got grandchildren.

And, you know, and I have this fantastic thing I get to do at the university, where I get to work with students, and that always feels meaningful. So Jesus is propping me up in all of those different ways all the time. Without that, I know I wouldn’t stick with it long enough to get anywhere.


About the Author

Sam Hendrian is a student at John Paul the Great Catholic University (Class of 2019) pursuing a double emphasis in Screenwriting and Directing.