First Draft: Five Inspiring Ways Famous Screenwriters Got Their Big Break

In partnership with the blog ScreenCraft, “First Draft” is a series on everything to do with screenwriting.


The famous screenwriters writing some of Hollywood’s most popular movies weren’t gifted immediate success when they decided to embark on their screenwriting journeys. They came from different walks of life, with years upon years of struggle. While learning about their process and behind-the-scenes tidbits about their famous projects can be helpful and give you a general benchmark to pursue, what is most inspiring is to learn what they had to endure to get to where they are today.

Here we feature five glimpses into the early lives of some of today’s most in-demand and heralded screenwriters.

Creighton Rothenberger and Katrin Benedikt (Olympus Has Fallen)

The married writing duo had a nice suburban life with a great East Coast house and two comfortable corporate jobs—yet both loved movies and had always wanted to write.

Creighton decided to finally take on screenwriting. He began to write at 4 a.m. before going into his corporate job each morning. He would work a full day and then watch movies and read scripts late into the night. This went on for a number of years until he won the Nicholl Fellowship.

He attained an agent, and then he and his wife conceived the script Olympus Has Fallen. But it didn’t sell. For almost a decade they wrote multiple spec scripts after selling their house and moving to L.A. Finally, Olympus Has Fallen was sold after nearly a decade of grinding away, trying to make something happen.

The two have since enjoyed success with multiple studio deals, and major produced credits including The Expendables 3 and London Has Fallen.

Quentin Tarantino (True Romance, Natural Born Killers, Reservoir Dogs, etc.)

We all know the story. He worked at a video store for years, surrounded by an endless supply of inspiration. For three years—whenever he had the money—he would shoot footage for an early film. However, he was so poor that he could barely ever process the film he shot. And when it was processed, a fire destroyed more than half of the footage.

He wrote True Romance and Natural Born Killers while working at the video store and eventually sold both of those scripts. While many call him an overnight success with the likes of his feature directorial debut, Reservoir Dogs, which he also wrote, the truth is he struggled for almost a decade before success started to come his way.

Karen McCullah Lutz and Kirsten Smith (10 Things I Hate About You)

Karen is an out-of-town success story, having broken through while living in Denver, Colorado. She dabbled in various career jobs outside of the film industry—marketing for an investment firm and public relations for a nonprofit.

During this time, she was writing and eventually began to send query letters to L.A. production companies. One of those was received by her eventual writing partner, Karen Smith, who was working in development at CineTel. Smith loved her writing, requested more scripts, and after their first face-to-face meeting they began to collaborate.

They sold their first script that they wrote together, 10 Things I Hate About You, which is now considered a rom-com classic. They would go on to write Legally Blonde, which then catapulted them into the studio comedy spotlight.

Diablo Cody (Juno, Young Adult)

She was a clerk at a Chicago bankruptcy firm, then worked at an ad agency, when she decided to quit to take on life as a full-time stripper. She began to famously blog about the experience under her pseudonym Diablo Cody, which she choose to use for internet anonymity—and also so she could make sure that her parents didn’t discover her blogging and alternative lifestyle.

Despite blogging for a few years before that, no one ever took notice until she started writing about her stripping life. In 2006, she published a book on the subject—Candy Girl: A Year in the Life of an Unlikely Stripper.

The blog was so successful that Hollywood came calling, wanting her to write a script. She had never attempted a screenplay but decided to take hold of the opportunity at hand. That first script was Juno. It would go on to become an iconic film and garner her an Academy Award.

Aaron Sorkin (A Few Good Men, An American President, West Wing, etc.)

Sorkin lived life in the ’80s as a struggling actor living in Manhattan and touring the south with a small theater company. He also worked odd jobs, such as delivering singing telegrams, driving a limousine, handing out fliers promoting a hunting-and-fishing show and bartending at Broadway’s Palace Theatre. During this time, he had no writing aspirations at all and always felt that he was the “dumbest person in the room.”

One day he saw a friend’s IBM Selectric, loaded a piece of paper, and wrote a few pages. After punching up the dialogue of a script his journalist friend had been sent, Sorkin stated in a New York Times profile, ‘”[I] felt a phenomenal confidence and a kind of joy that I had never experienced before in my life.”

He wrote three plays, the third of which was purchased by director Rob Reiner. That play—and eventual film—was A Few Good Men. He then began to write the script An American President for Rob Reiner, now with William Goldman as a personal mentor. Despite that mentorship, it took a few years for the script to be completed as Sorkin adjusted to the screenwriting format and structure. It would go on to become a critically acclaimed box-office success. Unused portions of that script would later be used for the iconic show West Wing.

He battled drug addiction for a number of years, but persevered and went on to win an Oscar for writing The Social Network. He was nominated the following year for co-writing Moneyball.


It’s comforting to know that these screenwriters had to go through the rites of passage that most novices will face. They too had to find the time to write while working non-industry jobs. They too suffered through rejections, writing multiple scripts that never saw the light of day. They too had to make that big and scary move to Los Angeles or were forced to write and market their scripts from afar.

Succeeding as a working and produced screenwriter can seem almost impossible these days. But “big breaks” never happen the way you expect them to. All that you need to do is continue to write, hone your craft, and get your stories out there. It may happen sooner for some, later for others, but you’ll never know when it will happen to you unless you press on. These five famous screenwriters are proof of that. MM

This post originally appeared on the blog ScreenCraft. ScreenCraft is dedicated to helping screenwriters and filmmakers succeed through educational events, screenwriting competitions and the annual ScreenCraft Screenwriting Fellowship program, connecting screenwriters with agents, managers and Hollywood producers. Follow ScreenCraft on TwitterFacebook, and YouTube.

1 Comment

  1. Star

    August 18, 2016 at 12:07 pm

    I read an early draft of American President–it was over 150 pp! I would say Sorkin got the hang of the format pretty darn well, though. I also heard a talk by him at the Film Market in NY–interesting.

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