This is the next post in a series of interviews with writers who have had their first films, web series, television assignment, etc. make it to the big or small or computer screen. It is an effort to find out what their journey was to their initial success.
Let me know what you think. Any feedback or suggestions for the sort of information you might like to know will be appreciated.
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Hilliard Guess has a knack for writing fast-paced, gritty, underdog stories. He’s a member of the WGAw and serves on the: Committee of Black Writers, Education Committee and the Gay & Lesbian Committee. In 2007, Hilliard won the Guy A. Hanks, Marvin H. Miller Screenwriting Fellowship at USC sponsored by Dr. Bill Cosby.
Currently, Hilliard’s a busy writer/director/producer in the independent TV/Film world and has produced TV Pilots, Sizzles, Shorts and Webseries through his TV/Film company, Hilldog Productions.
The past few years, he’s been an “assignment writer” for several independent Producers in both TV & Film, as well as an instructor for The Organization of Black Screenwriters and host of the hit Hilliard Guess’ Screenwriter’s Rant Room Podcast.
- My first project that was produced was called “Blackout.” It was originally an outline based on a contained thriller idea I called “Frenemy” which would evolve into the Horror/Supernatural, low-budget feature film. This project was my fifth screenplay at the time. I’d dabbled in several genres (as most new writers do) and finally decided to write something in a genre that moved me most as a kid… Horror!
- Blackout was eventually sold to a small company called Vivamorem Entertainment in 2004. They bought it in February and I wrote the script over the next few months. By August, Blackout was shooting on location in Santa Barbara! The film sold internationally at the American Film Market in 2006, to over several countries… within hours.
- Can you tell us a bit about the journey as to how it came about?
I’m a former actor. The producer of Blackout was a good friend of mine called Billy Parish. In fact, we were both signed to the same manager for many years, which is where we met and developed our friendship. I’d been writing for about four years at the time and had garnered some attention from one of my scripts the year before. That was the infamous, Sundance Feature Film Lab (and later, the Nicholls Fellowship), my very first screenplay “Rebel Yell.” The script advanced to the Final Cut which put me on a few important Industry Lists at the time.
Billy and I had lunch one day and talked about my writing career and his new, successful adventure as an indie producer, specializing in the Horror genre. I pitched him the idea for Blackout, added a bunch of horror elements to my original thriller and finished the pitch as a vehicle for Billy in the starring role and his chance to play a deeply conflicted character. He loved it!
The next day, papers were drawn (which included me receiving a co-producer credit) and I began to develop the story with him over the next few months.
- Tell me a little bit about the experience of having the project come to completion.
It’s kind of surreal. I remember going to all of the Casting Sessions and freaking out internally as I’d hear the actors read the Sides. I used to be an actor so you’d think it’d be easy, but it’s a weird thing to hear your words out loud when it’s been in your head for months.
I’ve since done dozens of table readings for my TV/Film scripts and it’s still always nerve wracking. Luckily for me, with Blackout, the producer was friend of mine, so he and the director included me in the process from script-to-screen and that was amaze-balls!
I remember very clearly the Premier we had at the Renberg Theater in Hollywood. Family and friends in a standing room only setting. It was here, watching the film at about mid-point, that I fully realized I didn’t want to be onscreen as an actor anymore. I loved the behind-the-scenes process so much it was all I cared about now. In fact, I know now that being an actor paved the way for me to become a much better writer and filmmaker!
- What was the hardest obstacle to overcome in achieving that first project?
For me (and I didn’t realize how much I’d learn until later) was writing toward a tight budget. All of my previous screenplays I didn’t care about that kind of stuff. The more explosions the better! So yes, that became a huge obstacle for me at first to tone down my great action scenes and focus on character. The best thing I ever could’ve done. Once I did, (even though some things didn’t make it to the screen as written) it made for a much smarter and interesting film, full of twists and turns.
I should also mention that Tim Munson, the director, also received a co-writer credit. In the end, as we approached production, I was on to another project so Tim stepped up and made some changes to fit the budget, so together we share the co-writing credit.
The other thing I learned was how to gain production value from a location and how to use it in your script. Now I teach that to younger writers/filmmakers all of the time. Use the elements around you! On a side note, it helped that we shot at one of the producers parents Mansion, in which 90% if the film takes place!
- What have you learned about the industry when it comes to being a writer?
I’ve learned that writers are at the bottom of the crab bucket just like actors (unless you’re the movie star or a big writer like John August). I’ve learned so much from being a writer, but I have to give some of the credit to having been an actor for 20 years who’s studied human behavior… a lot.
Things in the industry change every year. We also change as writers: style, craft, experience, etc.
One of the most important things I can tell you that I’ve learned is to “Be Your Own Boss.” Don’t wait for Hollywood. Don’t wait for an agent or manager or some producer to make your film. When you’re ready with a kick ass script… they find you. Trust me. Everybody talks here.
Your job is to grow and progress. Start making short films, commercials, sketch comedy and web series. This is where you can experiment with different genres and find your voice. Get behind the camera and learn the dynamics of the set.
I’ve worked on so many different projects over the years that I am now familiar with just about every department on a set. I can at least have a conversation if there’s any issues or fires to put out and that reads well with your crew when you’re a producer.
I wanted and needed to become my own boss. After the writers’ strike, the whole city was out of work. While walking the picket lines with friends over at Paramount Studios, I got the idea to start my own company, Hilldog Productions, a place where I can dedicate my talents to helping filmmakers with their projects from script-to-screen.
My first project that I wrote, directed and produced under my banner was the short drama “Troublesome”, about an unorthodox therapist and his conflicted client who find themselves trapped in a dangerous subway tunnel. I learned so much in the process and am so thankful the film garnered Critical Acclaim. As they say… “the rest is hist….” Never mind, that’s a cliche`!
- What are you working on now?
I go back and forth between TV and Film. But I’m currently in serious TV mode. I’ve been hired over the past three years by several producers to write pilots and features for them. I love doing that. I’m fast and I’m good at it.
So to answer your question, in the past six months, I’ve written a one hour drama set in the hard streets of London, a half hour dramedy for cable set at a quirky bar in Brooklyn and an edgy cop drama in the grimy streets of San Francisco.
In the meantime, I spend quite a bit of time behind the camera as a producer. Up next, I have a TV Pilot called “Back in the Nest” that I produced with Producer/Director Alisa Banks of Keep It Short Productions coming out in 2015. Alisa and I also produced a short drama called “The HIDDEN Toll” set in the harsh world of suicide among black men. We’ll premier in February during Black History Month.
I also have a hit podcast that I’ve been hosting the past year on iTunes & Stitcher called “Hilliard Guess’ Screenwriter’s Rant Room.” On the show, I give you hella industry GAME in this unfiltered, hilarious series that delivers nothin’ but REAL TALK… from real working writers… while at the same time… putting you on game!
We’re currently heard in over 50 states and 20 countries around the world, playing to thousands of listeners we call “Rant Room Heads!”
- What is your favorite movie or TV series?
My favorite movie is “West Side Story.” This film changed my life as a 12 year old kid from the ‘hood growing up outside of San Francisco. I literally went from break dancing on street corners to performing four musicals/plays a year at the Professional Children’s Theater. That film filled me with the need and desire to step into the theater and audition. All I knew at the time was that I had to dance and act no matter what.
So for me, WSS was the shit!
My favorite TV Series is “All in the Family.” I have fond memories of my entire family piled up in the living room crying and laughing at the same time as we watched Archie Bunker do his thing. The writing was so smart and earnest. Characters so flawed, but relatable. Dialogue didn’t feel like jokes. It was simply characters reacting to funny or intense situations.
If you turn on that show today… you will still laugh and cry your ass off. It’s that bloody good!
- Where do you think the movie and television industry is heading? What do you think its future is?
The movie industry is already heading toward the internet and cable. Has been for several years, strong. We got a taste of it recently when HBO announced they’d start streaming their own content. That, my friends, is the future. When I hear things like that, I say, “even HBO’s cutting out the middle man to be their own boss!”
Don’t forget. TV is heading in a more edgy arena. You can see it all over the Television these days. All of the best “Critically Acclaimed” shows are the more edgy, cable driven ones. The shows that are network ride the line of edgy that’s for sure.
Hell, even The Animal Planet is getting in on the act. They’re developing a scripted series called “The Other Dead,” based on the kick ass graphic novel by my good friend Digger Mesch and his incredible team.
Let’s look at Netflix, Amazon and Hulu. These giants are smashing everybody right now! If you look at their roster, it’s mostly a bunch of edgy projects filled with a diverse cast of characters! Writers, that is the future!
We’re also seeing more films and TV that represents what the people who live on this earth … look like. We’re not only white people. Don’t sleep on this truth. It’s not a fad.
Writers, I beg you… and you can combine this to the question below…
Do yourselves a favor and make sure you add people of color into your screenplays and pilots. Be current. If the only thing you watch is the News, turn on MTV or even some of the bad stuff like TMZ for a few minutes a day to see what’s the latest and hottest.
I’m sure some of you will disagree. But you’ll be surprised how much Pop Culture you will fill your lives with and more importantly, if you’re a writer over 40, it just might help you to actually have a conversation with all of those 20-something TV/Film execs you hate so much because you can’t identify with them. If not, you will be left behind and your work won’t represent reality. That in my opinion is the future of Television!
- What parting advice do you have for writers?
A couple of things:
If you get a meeting with a producer to staff on a series or to write an assignment for a film, be sure to really think about who you are and what you have to say about yourself… before you arrive. It’s not always about your writing that gets you the job. Sometimes it’s you being vulnerable and relatable. It makes you, at times, unforgettable. Tell them stories about your life that makes them fall in love with you, where you’ve been, an odd job you once had, a weird ex-girlfriend who’s now in prison? Something funny and off beat that no one could forget. It makes them want to hear more and want to know you more.
Don’t focus on the script in the interview. If you’re there, it’s because they’ve read you already. Now they’re trying to get to know the real you and decide if they want to work with you for months at a time for hours a day. However, if you talk about a script, talk about “why” it’s such an important subject to you personally. Relate it to a friend or lover to segue into your story smoothly. That for me is the key to being friggin’ interesting! It also makes someone feel like you must be the expert on the subject, because maybe you related it back to your mom or something.
You always hear writing Gurus and Instructors say, “You have to watch movies to be a screenwriter and you have to watch TV to write for Television. Let’s take it a step forward and say the same for “reading” screenplays/teleplays. It’s not just about watching movies or TV anymore. Because let’s be real. The hot writing format that was around two years ago has changed, for the better.
If you’re not reading the current, hot scripts and instead are just watching them on the TV/Screen, you’re gonna be way behind. So please read. Actually, in some instances I’d rather you read than watch. Our jobs as writers is to execute on the page. That is where you develop your voice and deliver impactful characters everybody will talk about.
So, in a nutshell, do me one favor, read… a ton and be edgy and dangerous with your writing, y’all!
- What do you do when you’re not writing? What do you do to get away from the industry?
When I’m not writing I’m usually reading. When I’m not reading, I’m usually writing. When I can’t do either… I’m listening to a podcast!
- I love to go to the beach with my partner Scott with our two dogs and watch them fetch the ball. I just smile the entire time we’re out there. It’s so relaxing and exciting. Every time we go, I come back burning to write. That and the gym is like a cleansing for me.
- The other thing I love to do is to take out either my vintage Starsky & Hutch, 1975 Gran Torino or any one of my 5 vintage Vespa and Lambretta Scooters. We go for a long rides through the Hollywood Hills and Sunset Blvd! It takes me back to my 80s Punk/Mod days when I was young and free!
- Tell us something about yourself that many people may not know.
Well, not that it’s important (or obvious for that matter) but I’m a gay, black man who’s been in a long-term relationship with my partner Scott for nearly 14 years. Yes, the gays can stick together, too, y’all! We have a great relationship and we love our dogs: Malibu & Venice.
Some would probably be surprised after hearing that about me to also find out that I’m also a diehard fan of the UFC and Boxing events. I’ve actually studied Martial Arts off and on since I was a teenager. I always love to say out of fun to my straight friends, “Don’t underestimate me y’all. Behind this tight shirt is a bloke who can throw down!”
Amir Ohebsion http://ow.ly/H8aPq
Donald McKinney http://ow.ly/GvPfn
Michelle Ehlen http://ow.ly/GvPr1
Amir Ohebsion, We All Had to Start Somewhere, Jimmy Vestwood