Thomas J. McLean is an AwardsLine contributor. This story appeared in the June 19 issue of AwardsLine.
My mentor was a guy, now deceased, named Nelson Gidding, who wrote a lot of movies for Robert Wise. I was a teaching assistant for him when I was at USC. He said, “Don’t try to write for the market, just write what you love. Write what you believe in, then stick to your guns even if it means you get fired.” There were some times when I’d stick to my guns and I’ve been fired, and some times I wish I’d stuck to my guns, which probably would have gotten me fired more. But he said that at the end of the day, everybody wants a good screenplay, and everybody recognizes good writing and creative integrity. In the long run, he felt that would win out.
On the big break
My real big break was the screenplay for Blade, which I wrote in 1994. And Michael DeLuca allowed me to write exactly what I wanted to write without any editorial comment. That first draft of Blade, which is pretty close to the film that got made, was the first time I was just simply allowed to write whatever was in my head. That script—even though it ended up taking about three years to get made—opened up a lot of doors for me because it was a script a lot of people in Hollywood liked, and it was on a lot of people’s reading lists. That was the first time that people just started offering me projects as opposed to me having to pitch them. It was the first time I had written a script that was just purely from my unexpurgated imagination, where there was no one editorially sitting over my shoulder saying, “Do this,” or “Do that,” or “That’s not funny,” or “I don’t buy that.” And it was really interesting to me that that was the script that ultimately landed me on the map.
On uncomfortable moments in the business
When a network executive wanted me to audition his mistress as a series regular, (and she) clearly did not have the dramatic chops to do it. And this person was going up against a woman who has since won an Academy Award, so that was awkward.
On the keys to success
Although luck can play a component in it, ultimately, if I look at a lot of the successful people I know, they were incredibly hard workers. I was very diligent when I was writing in film school and even after film school. Even when I had a job as a production assistant, I kept to a very strict writing schedule. Sometimes it was only an hour every night or something like that. But I look back and I track where I’m at versus some of the people I went to school with, and I had a lot more screenplays under my belt when I graduated. I was very tenacious, and a lot of the people I know who were successful are very tenacious. Luck can only take you so far. Yes, there are people out there who were incredibly lucky, but being tenacious is more important.
On parental advice
I had been accepted to USC Film School, and I grew up in Michigan. My mother had always wanted to be an artist, and she regretted not attempting that or pursuing that. She said to me, “You really need to do this and try this because if you try and you fail, you can always go back to being a detective or whatever. But if you have the opportunity to try to fulfill your dream and you don’t take it, you’re going to regret it for the rest of your life, like I did.” And so I remember that. And I thank her for that.