Wednesday, February 19, 2014

LA FIRSTS: Chris Cullari & Jennifer Raite

LA FIRSTS is an interview series at ATW&SB that shines a spotlight on just a few of the countless people who make the brave and absurd decision to move to Los Angeles to write for film or TV. We talk about what got them packing boxes, the realities that hit when they first came to L.A. and important milestones they finally achieved.

Chris Cullari and Jennifer Raite are a writing/directing team repped at Gersh and Stagecoach Entertainment. They released their breakthrough short, "The Sleepover," in 2012 and are now working to get their first feature off the ground while prepping to go out for TV staffing season. You can find them getting weird @Chris_Cullari and @jenniferraite.

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

Chris:  It wasn’t something I realized that I wanted or needed to do for the longest time. I knew I wanted to write from the time I was in kindergarten, but I grew up so far removed from even the idea of the film industry that Los Angeles was barely on my radar. When I imagined “making movies” I always saw it happening at home in Pennsylvania, which is hilarious to me now. It wasn’t until the end of college that all my friends in my program at Emerson started leaving for LA, that I was like “Oh, right. That. Better say bye to everyone I’ve ever loved.”

Jennifer: I decided to move to LA the day after I decided not to pursue a PhD in Art History. I was a double major at Vassar, but before graduating I sort of had to make a choice. After really thinking about it, I realized two things: first, movies had my heart, and I was ready to lay myself at their feet - even if that meant leaving the East Coast and all of my friends who were going to grad school. Second, there was no way I was going to pass the reading proficiency exams in two foreign languages that I needed for the PhD, so…  

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

Chris: They saw it coming before I did. I think my mom was prepping for it from the time I was in high school. I, however, reacted by crying like a baby the day I started driving out.

Jennifer: I’m an only child, so I think my parents are still in denial.  

What was the first thing you did when you arrived?

Chris: Technically, the first thing we did was go to the MTV Movie Awards. I’d won a trip through a college filmmaker competition MTV was running, and it coincided with when we both were getting ready to make the move. I had to fly back for my car and to finish up some school stuff, but Jen stayed behind.

Jennifer: Which was awesome, because MTV unknowingly helped subsidize my moving costs. I cancelled my return flight and used the credit to go home for the holidays. Merry Christmas to me! 

Chris: After we were both out here and settled the first thing we did was go see The Strangers at Mann’s Chinese. And then the next next thing we did was not sleep for a week.

Jennifer: It was the first time I appreciated the bars on LA apartment windows.

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

Jennifer: Craigslist. And I was so lucky that first swing out. We had an amazing management company; no terrible landlord stories, no insane neighbors. Well, the lady next door did some really aggressive aerobics. 

Chris: She’d blast Creed to get amped. To this day, I associate Scott Stapp with an impending workout. We did have a homeless guy living under our place at one point, too. He’d hooked up a coffee maker and everything. It was pretty impressive. And - oh - the Door Fucker Guy. Can we tell that story? This creeper was sticking his junk through people’s mail slots at night and our cat swatted at him.

Jennifer: He didn’t come back.

What was your first LA neighborhood like?

Chris: Contrary to the land of nightmares and deviants we just described, it was really great! Our complex butted up against a park without a lot of sightlines to the street, which was how we ended up with shady types hanging around sometimes, but in the two times we’ve moved, we never left the same mile or so radius. We’re in the Fairfax/Melrose area, so there are lots of great bars, restaurants and movie theaters nearby, and we have a great group of friends in our neighborhood.

How did you find your first job in LA?

Jennifer: Making money or working for free?  

Chris: I think making money. We were really good at working for free, though. Too good.

Jennifer: My first real job was doing film distribution data entry on the Fox lot. A really fantastic executive at the production company where I had been an intern put me up for it. What they really needed was a paralegal but they couldn’t afford one, so she (the exec) convinced them I was just as good and they hired me.  

Chris: I worked as an Office PA at a game show/reality show company. My cousin had put in some time there and dropped a good word for me.

What was that first job like?

Jennifer: The job itself was, well, data entry, but I was just so excited to be getting paid. The people were really cool and I loved working on a studio lot. Walking through the backlot sets to get to the commissary for lunch never stopped being mindblowing.

Chris: Exhausting.  A new adventure every day.  It spoiled me a little because everyone was really, really nice. I volunteered for every trip that needed to be made to their storage facility because they’d made some shows I remembered from when I was a kid and it was cool to see all the old props and photos they’d saved.

How did that first job help you land on your feet/expand your social circle?

Chris: Even though nothing that Jen and I were writing fit the mold of what the company was doing, one of the executives there had come from the feature world and was willing to take a look at our work. He gave us invaluable notes on our first feature script and offered to help us develop our second.

Jennifer: It helped get me on my feet financially. Plus, I had been going up for a string of development assistant type jobs, and it helped me realize what I really needed to be filling my days with was writing. The data entry gig left me determined to find a way to make just enough money so that I could support myself and write full time. 

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

Chris: I had it kind of easy. All of my college friends moved here, so my network for support and fun was already pretty solid.

Jennifer: None of mine did.  

Chris: Jen became an honorary Emersonian very quickly.

Jennifer: Some of them swear up and down I actually went there.

Chris: But! Here’s the thing that kind of sucked - having that network kept both of us from branching out as much as we could’ve.  

What was the first time LA felt like home?

Chris: My answer to this is so depressing.  Never.  I’m working on it, but I like seasons too much.  East Coast is where it’s at.  

Jennifer: I don’t know if it was a specific moment, but I think it’s come out of the group of friends we’ve built. Home is having people who you can always call or text or knock on their door in the middle of the night. Or who will feed your cat because you’ve been stuck on set for 16 hours.

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

Chris: This answer will be more uplifting: also never!  I’ve had weird jobs, bad jobs and demoralizing jobs, but I’ve never had that holy-shit-what-have-I-done-with-my-life moment.

Jennifer: I did!  I didn’t know a soul in LA when I moved here.  Chris had flown back, and like two days later, I totalled my brand new (and first) car with about 20 miles on it.  

How did you move past that first time feeling that?

Jennifer: This is so dumb, but in the spirit of honesty: a day or so after the accident I finally left my apartment in an attempt to stop moping and walked to Target.  Inside, I saw Jenna Fischer and Amy Adams run into each other.  They’re both a lot more famous now, but at the time it felt like a special TV nerd moment just for me; Pam Beesly and Purse Girl together at Target.  

Chris: Even though I’ve never felt like moving was a mistake, I’ve had dozens of little lows that were tough to move past.  Usually a walk and some coffee clears the worst of it, but I also like to sit down with an awful script and a great script - like Transformers 2 and Shaun of the Dead.  I’ll read the awful script first and go “Okay, you’re so much better than that,” and then I’ll read the great one to remind myself of where I want to be as a writer and how much farther I have to go.  That combo’s like a spark and some oxygen to get the fire roaring again.

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

Chris: No, absolutely not.  Life and work gets in the way.  To counter that, we drove ourselves insane for the first year or so.  We’d get up two or three hours before we had to leave for work to write, then come home and write more.  After a while, it just wasn’t working.  We were never leaving the apartment, we were fighting all the time and we were ready to kill each other.  It was too much.  We realized we’d have to live on even less money and work “real jobs” as little as possible to leave more time to write.

Jennifer: Luckily, a few months after that realization we both got jobs doing freelance coverage for a publishing company and never looked back.

Chris: It’s unnerving not knowing exactly how you’ll make rent every month, but the freedom is amazing.  It actually makes it possible to write almost full time.

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

Jennifer: There were a lot of near misses.  Like “this is it - it’s happening!” and then it didn’t. 

Chris: The first thing that really connected with a wider audience was a short film we made in 2012, “The Sleepover.”  We’d been writing together for almost four years, but it wasn’t until we made that piece that we discovered it was much easier to get people to pay attention for five minutes and then hit them with a writing sample than it was to just try to get people to read material cold.

Jennifer: It hit the right nerves.  We played the festivals we wanted to play and were covered by the websites we read every day, which was really incredible.  It was at that point that an agent who’d been encouraging us for almost a year and half read a second writing sample, loved it, and offered to rep us.

How much longer did that exposure take from when you first expected it?

Chris: Part of me thought it took four years too long, but the other part couldn’t believe it happened at all.  I’d tried so hard to put expectations and time-frames out of my mind that it blindsided me a little.

Jennifer: There were a few things with the misses that could’ve potentially been bigger, and each time we whiffed, it felt like “If not now, when?”  We had a small development deal that was a great learning experience but didn’t result in a project getting off the ground.  We placed well in a few of the big screenwriting competitions, but never won.  We fell one round short of getting into one of the TV writing fellowships.  Eventually, we learned to just take those as reminders that we were doing good work, instead of dwelling on them as failures or missed opportunities.

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

Chris: I probably would start daydreaming about moving to California earlier - maybe around age ten - get really excited about it for twelve years, and then be ecstatic to arrive.  I think falling in love with the city and feeling like I was at home from day one would’ve helped me get out more, meet more people, and not go see The Strangers before I knew all the weird noises my apartment made.
Jennifer: I think I’d try to be a little less hard on myself  Every opportunity, especially early on, just felt like the end of the world if I didn’t nail it.  “I should’ve given this better answer,” or “I should’ve tried harder to impress that executive” or “why didn’t that person get back to us about our script?”  At the end of the day, you have to be happy with working really, really hard because most days knowing that is the reward.

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