Tuesday, March 18, 2014

LA FIRSTS: Nick Sinnott


Nick Sinnott is a writer and Emmy award-winning VFX artist who went through the AFI Conservatory's rigorous screenwriting program. He graduated in '09 with a handshake option on a TV pilot and continues to write while working in television post production. You can find him being awesome (and posting an excessive number of photos of his cat Hobbes) at @ndsinnott.

When did you first realize that you wanted, or needed, to move to LA?

On a Thursday in August ‘07 I arrived home to find a message on my answering machine from the AFI Conservatory offering me a spot in their screenwriting program. The catch: classes started in three weeks and I only had a single weekend to decide. At the time I was pulling 80-hour weeks at a visual effects company in San Francisco, mostly entry-level work on projects I would never pay to see. Earlier in the year I had taken a month sabbatical to hastily write and submit a draft of my first feature script to AFI--it earned me an interview and a kindly worded rejection. However, a space had opened up at the last minute and they were willing to give me a second chance. I weighed my options, decided it was too expensive, and replied with a thanks but no thanks email. I spent that entire weekend hunched over a graphics tablet in the cramped vfx studio, slowly growing to regret the decision. I called admissions at 7:58am Monday morning to tell them I changed my mind and had made a huge mistake and please oh please dear god tell me there’s still an open spot. There was.

How did your friends and family react when you first told them you were moving?

My family back in Indiana had already adjusted to me living in California, so the actual move wasn’t a huge deal. I expected some push back when I told my parents I would be taking out hefty federal loans to cover the cost, but they remained supportive to a fault. As my father put it, “You didn’t move all the way across the country to NOT make movies.”

What was the first thing you did when you arrived?

I checked into the cheapest hotel I could find with a weekly rate and immediately drove into Hollywood for an awkward meet-and-greet for new AFI fellows at a since-shuttered club whose name escapes me. It marked the first and last time I ever set foot in a Los Angeles nightclub.

How did you find your first LA apartment (and what was it like)?

It took roughly three weeks of scouring Craigslist before finally locking down a not-too-terrifying one-bedroom in Burbank with a landlord willing to accept a student loan promissory note in lieu of a security deposit.

How did you find your first job in LA?

It found me. The visual effects studio I had worked at in San Francisco closed shortly after I left, sending many of its artists fleeing to LA for employment. The day after graduating AFI, I received a call from a former coworker I kept in contact with asking if I was available for a part-time night shift working on the visual effects for Avatar. It sounded like an easy way to cover rent while keeping my days open for meetings, but… more on that below.

What was your social circle like when first arriving in LA?

Surreal. My first LA friend was a producing fellow who lived alone in a mansion just off Los Feliz built by a long-dead actor for his mistress, still packed with dust-covered artifacts of the silent era. I was one of the few classmates the producer had entrusted with knowing where she lived--she wanted to keep her inherited wealth a secret during the first year of classes, assuming (correctly) she would be unfairly judged or exploited for it. Everyone else I met through AFI was equally fascinating and I stuck exclusively to socializing with other fellows that first year, but during year two we all tired of each other and began networking/partying/sleeping with our counterparts at USC and UCLA.

What was your first celebrity sighting or a time you saw/met someone you admired?

My first-year workshop instructor took us on a field trip to see Noah Baumbach at the DGA theater. Baumbach was asked what the most painful part of writing Margot at the Wedding was and responded, “Not letting myself browse the internet.” He was being glib but for me his answer humanized the idea of screenwriting as a profession.

What was the first time LA felt like home?

Eight months after moving here, a friend shared some leftover pizza from Tomato Pie and I was over the moon. It was the first pie I’d tasted in California on par with the ones I had grown used to during my undergrad years in upstate New York. I would later learn the owner grew up in Liverpool, NY, home of Avicolli’s--hands down the best pizza I had while in college.

What was the first time moving to LA felt like a mistake?

I deferred as long as I could, but eventually the day came when I had to start repaying my student loans. By this point, my part-time job had escalated to another 80-hour/week nightmare, leaving me with zero writing time. It felt like I was right back where I started, only now I massively in debt.

How did you move past that first time feeling that?

I did the sensible thing and quit my job. A few months later I was offered a staff position at a smaller vfx studio and this time I was up front about needing time to write. They promised not to invade my nights or weekends and so far, they’ve kept that promise. It’s still not ideal but at the very least the current gig led to my recent Emmy win, which has proven useful to bring up in meetings.

Did you have the kind of writing time you expected when you first got settled?

The screenwriting program at AFI is essentially a 27-month writing workshop, during which time fellows are expected to devote every waking second to their craft. Since graduating, I’ve found that first drafts and page one rewrites are easier to schedule around a day job than smaller revisions or polishing, which take a clear head and a focus difficult to muster after spending all day squinting at pixels.

What led to your first bit of exposure as a writer?

AFI brought in a working showrunner to teach my second-year TV writing course, and he loved the pilot I wrote in his class so much he asked to option it and take it around town. The pilot failed to find a home, but it was thrilling to gain my first industry advocate.

If you could do it all again, which of your firsts in LA would you do differently (and why)?

When a writing fellow graduates from the AFI Conservatory, their contact info and loglines to any features they’ve written during their fellowship are published in a little booklet that gets sent to every studio, agency, and management company in LA. This happens concurrently with a swanky gathering the conservatory puts together to match graduates with industry representatives--sort of a film student debutant ball. Afterwards, provided we made an impression, requests for scripts start pouring in. It’s all terribly exciting, but when my turn came I forgot to keep a level head and rushed to send out many, many scripts that weren’t quite ready, burning several bridges in the process.

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