interview: Beau Henry, Austin Film Festival winner 2008
Beau and I met through our wonderful writing group. Not only did he win Austin in the comedy spec category in 2008, he was also a semifinalist this year! You can follow him on twitter @BeauHenry and on his blog at http://readmypilot.wordpress.com.
You won the Austin Film Festival in 2008 with an Office spec, and you got to meet Greg Daniels. Can you talk about that experience?
Everything about the festival is amazing and if you’re thinking of going, do it. Back in 2008, I knew nothing about the industry, I’d never even been to LA, and that Office spec was my first and only script. I was completely unprepared. Worse, I was stricken with “impostor syndrome.” But I still had a great time, learned a lot, and met a lot of interesting people.
Greg Daniels was the recipient of the “Extraordinary Contribution to Television Award” that year. I saw him at the BBQ and walked right up, and awkwardly said something like, “You’re Greg Daniels, I’m a finalist in the sitcom category and I want to talk to you.” And he said, “Oh, why don’t you join me and my parents at this table?” He was incredibly friendly. He asked questions and listened, but didn’t talk much. In fact, I don’t think he said a single funny thing, despite being one of the greatest comedy writers of all time. He just wanted to hear what everyone else had to say. His parents were wonderful as well. At the awards luncheon, when I won, they both congratulated me, like I’d really made them proud. It was really sweet.
What happened after winning Austin?
I left Austin knowing I had to move LA. But I didn’t. I had a good job in Houston — making maps for oil companies — a nice apartment, and I was in a serious relationship. I kept writing, and even went back to the festival a couple times, but I had less and less hope of a Hollywood career. I put the nail in the coffin of my TV writing dreams when I bought a house in Houston with my girlfriend. We broke up five months later. I emerged from that break-up ready to move to LA and start my writing career. But the house wouldn’t sell, so I was stuck.
In October of 2011, I took two weeks’ vacation to finally visit LA and take Improv 101 at The Upright Citizens Brigade. I stayed with a girl I knew from Texas, who had recently moved to Hollywood. It was a life-changing trip. After that, I absolutely had to move to LA. Not just to write, but also because I’d fallen madly in love with the girl I stayed with. So I did the dumbest thing ever that no one should ever do unless they absolutely have to, which I did (see sentence 4 of this paragraph): I walked away from my house, I cashed in my retirement fund, and I moved to LA. It worked though. I got the girl, and my writing career will come along soon enough, I’m told.
What was your previous writing background?
When I was twelve I wrote comic book scripts in WordPerfect for DOS. In middle school, I wrote an X-Files spec (before I knew what a spec was) about tornados and UFOs. I started a few novels too. I’d spend hours designing the cover, then write five pages and give up. In college, I was a philosophy major so I wrote a lot of long papers (poorly, and always the night before they were due). And I drunkenly conceived of various trite and pretentious story ideas. Occasionally, I’d even write a few pages, but I never finished anything. After college, I learned screenwriting format so I could start on one of my masterpieces and give up the next day. (Writing is awful hard.) Then one day I came up with a funny idea for a scene from The Office. I wrote it and showed it to some friends, and one of them advised me to write a spec script. I quickly Googled “spec script.”
What is it like at the Austin Film Festival? Any advice for people going?
I’m required by law to say “Austin is a great city,” but I know it to be true. I lived in and around Austin for 5 years. The festival happens in the middle of downtown, in the gorgeous Driskill Hotel. It’s a great environment and geared toward writers. The panels are amazing, the parties are fun, and the films are great too.
You should know that the Dos Equis is free, the other beers are not.
You should make friends. I immediately found the other two finalists in my category and befriended them (one is now a working TV writer and we still get beers occasionally). People in Hollywood want to help other people. Favors are currency here (like cigarettes in prison). Introduce yourself to the important people and say something nice. If a conversation emerges, awesome, go with it. If not, smile and move on. Never force it.
And don’t be the tool that tries to give someone your script or DVD. I watched some dude try to force Greg Daniels, the nicest guy on earth, to take his DVD of his short film. It was more cringe-inducing than the worst thing Michael Scott’s ever done.
You recently got an agent at a mid-level agency. Can you talk about how that happened?
Hip-pocketed. I can’t even utter the words “my agent” without feeling like a total fraud. So here’s how I got, uh, my agent. I met “accomplished writer” at the Austin Film Festival in 2008. We had drinks and a good conversation. I saw him again in 2009 and he gave me his card and told me to get in touch when I finally made it out to LA. I lost the card.
Fast-forward to 2012, I’m in LA! I looked up “accomplished writer” and sent him a nice, short message saying who I was, how we knew each other, and a little joke referencing a story he told on a panel. Of course he didn’t remember me, but he liked my note and asked me to dinner. I was nervous, but we hit it off again. He graciously picked up the check, wished me good luck, and that was it. A month later I shot him an email, just to check in, saying I’d finished a new pilot and was seeking representation. As luck would have it, he’d just spoken with a TV lit agent in search of new clients. He passed my pilot to the agent, the agent loved it, and now I’m hip-pocketed.
So what does that mean? I don’t know yet, it’s still pretty recent. But I will say that my agent is a really cool guy. I totally expected all agents to be mini-Ari Gold douchebags. But nope, this guy is a lot like me. He likes good writing and good beer and hates wearing a suit.
You just moved to LA this year. Any advice for people considering the move, and for people when they first get here?
Don’t believe the haters, LA is pretty cool. There are plenty of things that suck about it, but just like any city, you have to find your happy places. I live in a cheap, but decent apartment in an amazing neighborhood in Hollywood. I’m within walking distance of two grocery stores, dozens of bars, several comedy venues, the ArcLight, and just about anything else I’d ever need. It’s pretty great.
When you get to LA, find other writers immediately. They’re nice and they want to help you. Join a writing group. Take improv classes.
What’s your writing process like?
I’m unemployed (Obama!) at the moment so I “write” for 8 or more hours a day sometimes. I write on a legal pad, on Post-It note cards, in TextEdit, in IA Writer, in Pages, in Evernote, and in Final Draft. I don’t know why, but I have to use all of them. Often at the same time.
I like to do a lot of stream-of-consciousness writing in order to get to the heart of the story/scene/character/what have you. I can write a dozen or more longhand pages about a new pilot idea before I come close to understanding it.
Once I’ve got a concept, I break the basic beats of the story. I like Sheldon Bull’s classic sitcom structure from Elephant Bucks (Read the book). You start with a goal, throw in an obstacle, take an action and make things worse; then you make a new goal, take a new action and make things really bad, and then you resolve it. It may not always work, but it’s useful.
One of my favorite exercises to do with a new project is a “character tree.” I learned this from Film Crit Hulk’s article on screenwriting (Bing it). I’m not really writing until I know who the characters are, and sometimes that takes a while.
But far and away, the best weapon in my arsenal is my writing group. I like to break my story with them on Post-It note cards. Then I’ll go write a shitty draft. I’ll get notes from the group and write a new draft. And then I’ll have an epiphany in the shower that changes the whole concept. More drafts, more notes, more epiphanies. The group keeps me on course throughout the process and always gives me some great jokes. Comedy is better with other people.
Also, when I’m not writing, I put down every idea or joke I think of into Evernote on my phone.
What makes a script stand out to you, both good and bad?
Confidence and clear communication. But really I just like good laughs, which means good comedy chops.
Any advice for aspiring writers?
Take improv classes. Make friends. Be a good person. Have good taste, because you can only write as well as the stuff you aspire to. And just be a writer. Write.
What are you working on these days?
I’m on a second draft of multi-cam spec pilot. As opposed to the single-cam stuff I usually write, this one is more in line with the shows I grew up with, like NBC Must See TV. I’m also shooting sketches and developing a web series with my friends from UCB classes. And I’m desperately seeking a day job (kinda).
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Thanks to Beau for sharing his experiences! If you have any questions for Beau, post them in the comments and I’ll try to get him to answer.
Great read. His responses are encouraging without being buttery or patronizing.
Another great post, Kiyong. And I must echo Beau’s sentiments about the Austin Film Festival and Writer’s Conference – it’s fantastic! I think it’s an interesting reminder, too, that just because you win a huge contest like Austin (major congratulations, Beau!) doesn’t mean Hollywood will suddenly come knocking at your door with the money truck. No, you must keep at it and keep writing. Good for Beau for staying focused!