Exclusive interview with Tom McCown – Writer
Tom McCown began writing and publishing his poetry in national broadsheets and small literary magazines as an undergrad at the University of Nebraska. David Curry’s APPLE, E.V. Griffith’s POETRY NOW, and Ted Kooser’s THE NEW SALT CREEK READER to name a few. He had received a full scholarship in basketball to play at Nebraska U. but during his freshman year a serious knee which ended any athletic career in the NCAA. He quit school and worked in a laundry where he found that writing poetry kept his spirit above water. Later, returning to school at Nebraska, he graduated with a B.S. in Education/English.
Post-undergrad, he spent four years bartending while building a profile of great characters to write about. He matriculated into working for Planned Parenthood for a year as an Education Counselor. Being the only male on staff at the PP Clinic, he quickly learned the importance of the political power women can wield and being shoulder to shoulder with staff in helping to trash male and female stereotypes while in the process of acquiring and gaining that power.
He was accepted into the graduate program at UCLA Film school and received an MFA with a concentration in screenwriting. Post-grad school, he joined the inevitable hustle for writing work in Hollywood. Access into the film industry for a beginner is a challenge beyond challenges. It’s about networking when there doesn’t seem to be any network with which a beginner might network. So, you either get creative about that or you go home. At first, day jobs are mandatory. He worked the truck docks in downtown LA that was a lot like the film, ON THE WATERFRONT. He worked as a laborer in a cosmetics warehouse in Beverly Hills and was a shipper for Gucci on Rodeo Drive. Just as he was offered the job as Head Shipper at Gucci, luck showed up and he was offered a job as a receptionist at a small literary agency. He took the receptionist job and got his first literary agent by coaxing the lit agents to read his work.
Work opportunities took off relatively quickly. Most of his resume after 25+ years in the Hollywood film industry has been filled with work for A-list producers. Work highlights include HEART OF DIXIE, made by Orion Pictures. He wrote a sequel to DIRTY DANCING, DIRTY DANCING II, and did significant uncredited writing work on the animated film for Disney, MULAN. Writing work in film development is how film industry screenwriters used to stay financially afloat. He developed and/or optioned original or adapted scripts for producers, Michael Shamberg, Michael Apted, Richard Zanuck, Laura Ziskin, Irwin Winkler, Jerome Hellman, Steve Tisch, and Lorenzo di Bonaventura.
During the course of the writing career, he always had teaching in mind. He taught as an adjunct screenwriting professor at the North Carolina School of the Arts/School of Filmmaking. He won a Wm. Randolph Hearst Visiting Fellowship In-Residence award for screenwriting in the College of Communications (now the Moody School) in the film school at the University of Texas-Austin.
Serious medical issues brought a halt to his career around 2014. While recovering from radiation treatment for cancer and 13 other major surgeries (mostly joint replacements) for a spine disease, he knew that becoming structurally sketetal robotic was not the only goal moving forward that he had in mind. He wrote a graphic novel and reworked several original screenplays while horizontal. Over the last few years, he has had success with winning laurels in multiple film festivals with his screenplays. In 2022, he was a Finalist in the New York International Screenwriting Competition and won an “Outstanding Achievement in Writing” award recently from the ISC in 2023. Both in 2022 and 2023, there were nearly 2,000 international submsissions to the ISC festival. Also, the online, international art gallery, The NIL Gallery in New York chose one of his illustrations from the graphic novel as an award winner in the 2023 NIL competition.
As mentioned, “access” into the Hollywood film industry is a huge challenge, and Tom believes the strategy of a shot at winning success in the national and international film fests for screenwriting may be an effective way of getting his foot back into the film industry door.
NY Glam: What projects are you currently working on?
I’m working on a few spec screenplays at once. The one that is getting most of my attention these days is about the escalating level of violence in contact sports and how violence is so ingrained in American culture.
NY Glam: What makes a film great for you? Are there certain qualities that make a film better for you?
Yes, there are certain qualities within a film story that make a film better for me. I write inside-out, meaning that I begin thinking about story by developing my main characters first. Then, story is drawn from how a character changes through Act I, II, and III. When a film is made that touches the deepest chords of emotional complication in its characters it assumes a much higher quality of presentation for me. I don’t like the labeling of genres because there are genre mixtures that can stay away from the limits of adhering to one genre or another.
NY Glam: As a screenwriter, what is the most important aspect of building a character?
Emotion. What is it inside your lead character, or characters, that drives the story. “It’s Chinatown, Jake.” “It’s not personal, Sonny. It’s just business.”
NY Glam: Top 3 favorite projects that you have been involved in?
HEART OF DIXIE (Orion Pictures) DIRTY DANCING II (Vestron Pictures) MULAN (animated, Disney Studios) There was another one in development that I was hired to write by Richard Zanuck called SEMINARY HILL which was fabulous. About the collision of the 1960’s in Berkeley, CA with christianity in the form of a Berkeley seminary student. It was a FOX studio project which they put in turnaround (decided not to finance) shortly after we began to work on it.
NY Glam: Do you express yourself creatively in any other ways?
I love to illustrate as well as to write. They have become combat forces in my brain on a month to month basis. I tend to choose the one that makes the most passionate case for itself at any given time.
NY Glam: What advice would you give to someone who wants to have a career in filmmaking?
I am very aware of how long the Hollywood film industry has been in transition for over twenty years now. And that “transition” has begun to feel like a permanent state. There are multiple reasons for this. The advances in film technology presentation being at the center. So, too, with this transition, a spirit of independence from the old, traditional ways of doing business that began with the archaic hold of the studios on contracted talent has continued to rise with some enthusiasm. Social media has played a role for newbies as well as vets. How to buck the proverbial gateway of access into the industry, or to stay, locked in once you are in, is being tested. Today, some folks believe they might be able to just email or text in their talent from the internet. That somehow cyber-networking may be a new key for getting discovered, getting work. I still think a beginner has to get his or her ass, physically, to LA, maybe New York. The film industry works on face to face contact. Meet and greet meetings. Pushing your agent while in the same room. You have to be willing to take risks that involve work strategy and be aggressive about that.
I’d like to get my film that I won laurels with at the NY ISC, DOCTOR X, made. After being with nearly every major literary agency except CAA, I’d like to find an agent, who understands I’m not particularly interested in the “factory” writing work on the TV streaming apps. Factory, meaning being tied to the story limits dictated by the show runner and production company execs.
NY Glam: Where can everyone keep up with you to learn more? …social media…website
I am nearly non-existent on social media sites. I’m on Facebook only because it is difficult to get off the damn site once you’re on. My mistake. You can contact me through Glamour magazine, where some very smart folks there have figured out that there is a burgeoning population of young women chomping at the bit with ridiculous talent about how to get started in the film business. Here’s a clue: When you think you’ve maybe kicked a little too much ass to get where you want to go as a filmmaker, kick some more.