When I was 21 I was pretty sure that I would win an Oscar, probably by the time I was 25. This never happened. However, it does still sometimes lead to conversations with people I haven’t seen for a while where they – having also half-bought into my dreams and the idea that someone, even if it’s not them, is ‘Following their Heart’ – tentatively ask whether I’m “still writing”. And I tell them about the things I write, usually starting with stuff for newspapers and elsewhere, or my blogs for the BBC Writersroom, because I know they’ll find these the most exciting, before moving on to copywriting (“I’m basically Peggy from Mad Men”), script reading (“I’ve written over 5000 reports, you know…”) and this blog (“No, I don’t get paid, but I can write about whatever I like and that is worth more than money – isn’t it?”).
“But are you still writing scripts?” is what they really want to know. And I’ll eventually have to tell them, no – when I failed to instantly win an Oscar in my early-twenties, I got demoralised and stopped. If they look upset by that, like I’ve mis-sold them payment protection insurance or something, I’ll explain that there are other things that you can do with your life that aren’t scriptwriting – and that, in my experience, these are often more enjoyable than sitting alone in an empty room and staring at a blank screen. Sometimes they will agree and it will be like I’ve freed them from the millstone of aspiration hanging around their neck. At other times they will look bereft, as if by shattering my own dreams I’ve inadvertently done the same to theirs. “But you went to Hollywood?” they’ll say, desperate for any evidence that I’ve achieved the kind of success that they and my younger self had hoped for. Yes, I’ll say, and to cheer them up I’ll tell them a bit about what happened there:
When I was at university in Bournemouth (which, having grown up in a small village in North Yorkshire, might as well have been Ibiza), there was a competition to go and study screenwriting at UCLA’s School of Theater, Film and Television in in Los Angeles. Even though I was pretty sure I would become a rich and famous scriptwriter, almost certainly by the end of the year, I thought, “If I want to win an Oscar I should probably go to the place that makes the things.” And so I wrote a TV drama about unemployed people in Scarborough, which, against the odds, won – the trip to UCLA that is, not an Oscar, strangely.
And so, in 2001, 10 days after the attack on the World Trade Center (a place I was previously only dimly aware of), I took my new laptop, trainers, passport and swimming costume on our first ever trip in an aeroplane. It was exciting, scary and took what seemed like three weeks to get anywhere. While my mother had given me a step-by-step list of instructions on ‘what to do at the airport’, everything after I stepped out of LAX and into a taxi was unknown.
UCLA is located in a part of Los Angeles called Westwood. It was here that I had arranged to stay, in the University Cooperative Housing Association (known as ‘The Co-op’). Having only a vague idea of what a housing cooperative was, I was hoping for a cross between something from Beverly Hills 90210 and the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Instead, I was dropped off outside what appeared to be a multi-storey car park. “I’m looking for the housing cooperative,” I said to a sullen man behind a desk. “You’re here,” he replied. Dear god, I thought, but I was tired and fell asleep on a bare mattress in the tiny room I was shown to. It was only when I woke up that I noticed how closely that the place resembled a prison cell – and that my roommates had arrived.
Sharing a room for three months with two other people you’ve never met before perhaps isn’t for everyone, but the roommates I was lucky enough to get turned out to be great. And apart from having to do a four-hour work shift sweeping leaves in the driveway once a week (which I decided was preferable to working in the industrial-sized kitchen or cleaning bathrooms), life in The Co-op was actually great fun. The students (and odd non-student) staying there were from places ranging from India to Germany to Hawaii, there was endless food (including a quite spectacular breakfast buffet which could be eaten on a roof terrace overlooking the city), cinema nights and lots of staying up late, drinking wine and trying to play an old piano. Yes, the place could have done with a good clean, but it was like nowhere else I’d ever been and cost only $500 a month – including four meals a day!
There was also something called ‘bump’, which involved everyone swapping rooms. Those who had been there longest got first choice of a few so-called ‘penthouse’ apartments, while the rest of us scrabbled over any remaining private bathrooms in an atmosphere somewhere between moving house and attending a baseball match. It was the evening of ‘bump’ that I realised the whole place was not only inhabited by students but run by them – and finally discovered that this is what a housing cooperative actually was (you can read more from people who have stayed in my one, here).
A short walk down Landfair Avenue, through an underpass everyone at The Co-op recommended I only attempt brandishing a full can of pepper spray, and there was UCLA – the most spectacularly kitsch university ever. It’s full of faux historical buildings, like Oxford reimagined by Steven Spielberg. The first time I walked through it cheerleaders were practicing marching, a band was playing, the sun had never seemed so bright and I was half-expecting John Travolta from Grease to strut by drinking a bottle of Snapple. Here Bruin-wear (the kit of the university sports team) was the equivalent of a school uniform, and since attending a course costs a small fortune there were endless swanky gyms, outdoor pools and restaurants on campus to help everyone feel they’re getting their money’s worth.
So what about screenwriting? Oh yeah, between having a great time in The Co-op and trying not to step in the fermenting food pouring down my street (because everyone had so much of it), I did actually do some. Screenwriting students at UCLA are expected to write a finished feature film every quarter (term). They can also take classes in all kinds of other things – from script reading to producing to film criticism. One of the best things I learnt is how useful it is to watch a good film twice; once for enjoyment and once to really understand how it works. Then there were guest lectures from people I loved, such as Baz Luhrmann, as well as test screenings of films from the studios before they were released. And everyone seemed to be making these films – actually making them, rather than just saying they wanted to, or they might do, or they could have done. Whether they really were, I’m not sure, but it almost didn’t matter. It felt like the Hollywood dream was happening and just being in a place where everyone fed into it was exciting enough in itself.
I stood outside weekly film premieres in Westwood, watched DVDs in Beverly Hills, stayed in a motel in Hollywood and walked along the beach where Alfred Hitchcock filmed The Birds. But all too soon it was time for me to get rid of the giant picture of a sunset I’d found by a bin, abandon the comfy desk chair a girl I met at a baseball match had given me, cancel my overpriced phone contract with Verizon and come home. Even though I was only in LA for three months, everyone was so kind and welcoming – not at all cold and anonymous in the way I’ve since heard people describe the city – it felt like I lived there. The stuff I remember most about my trip wasn’t to do with scripts at all – it was life at The Co-op, being in a new country, meeting people and travelling to interesting places. And while I had managed to write a feature film script there – about a teenage disco dancer from Wakefield – when I got home people didn’t like it as much as the one that had got me to LA in the first place. But perhaps that was because I was having too much fun for writing. However, I did get an Oscar – a plastic one with my name sellotaped on it, bought from a gift shop outside Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood.