When you want to write professionally, there is no clear path to accomplishing that dream. There’s no equivalent to law or medical school, no test you can take to prove that you’re a good writer, no entry level positions at large writing companies. But still, somehow, people become writers. For Will Staples ’00, my Princeternship host, I learned, that path involved leaving investment banking, packing up a U-Haul, moving to Los Angeles, and starting to write.
My day took me to a variety of Will’s regular haunts: his house, two nearby coffee shops (the first one was completely filled with writers, so we had to find another), his favorite noodle restaurant, and his office, a small room on the top floor of church in Santa Monica, which he shares with another writer. But where we went wasn’t that important: it was all about the stories.
From when we first sat down in that second coffee shop, Will was sharing details from his life. Whether offering an anecdote about spending an evening with Navy Seals or talking about the various projects that he has worked on, every story he told taught me something about what it’s like to actually write in the real world. You have to put everything you have into each project. You have to do the research, plan, and edit. Then edit again and again and again. And then, if the project doesn’t pan out, you have to let it go. It’s a rough world; even when a script is sold, even when directors and actors are attached, it’s still a long way off from getting a movie made. It can dangle in development limbo forever, a fate worse than death. That’s why you should be careful about making it too autobiographical, Will told me, because it will be too hard to let go of, a piece of advice I certainly needed.
But under everything else, the most important element to Will’s world is friendliness. While this seems odd given Hollywood’s reputation, being an outgoing, trustworthy, loyal individual has helped Will more than a competitive attitude ever could (although there’s still a touch of that). Will’s expertise is in action movies, but he has an angle no one else has. A self-professed research junkie, Will had never fired a gun before working on Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3. While other writers might’ve been content to make it up, to copy other movies or games, Will needed to experience it firsthand. This led to him reaching out to military experts: Seals, Delta Force operators, Special Forces, and more. Today, not only does he know how to shoot (with night-vision, no less), but he also has a host of contacts that he can reach out to at any time. Because he commits to his research and honors the stories of men who have risked their lives around the world, these soldiers, his friends, offer Will insights and details few writers have access to. They know that he will use their information to tell the best, and most honest, story possible. This is Will’s edge: not the ability to undercut or slander another writer, but to show up at a pitch with a folder full of information and say, “I know how this works. I am the right man for this project.” Which is not to say that Will is always the right man for the job. Sometimes, a job comes up that you have to pass on, because you have to be honest with yourself and not make promises you can’t keep. But when the right idea does come along, Will can put himself out there, knowing that he really will do the job better than anyone else.
During my day with Will, I got to sit in on a phone call with TV producers, read screenplay drafts, and discuss possible future projects. But the greatest thing to me were the stories. A man who has made it where so few have was willing to take the time to share his thoughts on writing with me, and I cannot be more grateful. Will’s commitment to research, to editing, and to fostering strong relationships will influence my own writing process for years to come. Entering the world of freelance screenwriting is a daunting prospect, but it didn’t stop Will Staples, and thanks to the time I got to spend with him, I hope it won’t stop me.