Two years ago, David Anaxagoras was about to give up on screenwriting when he wrote a pilot script that got discovered by Amazon Studios. That pilot is about to be launched as a series on November 21st, when Gortimer Gibbon’s Life on Normal Street makes its big debut on Amazon Prime.
While he’s often referred to as a “first-time writer,” Anaxagoras has been writing for years, from short story workshops in college to evening classes after college to a full-time MFA in Screenwriting from UCLA, which he completed nine years ago. Now he has a manager and an agent – and hard-earned insights that only a long-struggling writer can offer.
What kind of scripts were you writing before you tackled Gortimer?
I wrote a lot of kid-centric action-adventure feature scripts. I grew up on Spielberg and Lucas and loved big adventures, Indiana Jones, Back to the Future, Goonies. But unless you’re adapting an established property like Harry Potter, it’s very difficult to break in with that kind of script.
You were a pre-school teacher before you became a full-time screenwriter. Did your job help inform your writing?
It definitely did. When I was teaching, it was common to see a lot of new teachers want to entertain the kids or distract them from their feelings, especially if they were sad. But kids have a lot of emotional depth to them, and you have to deal with that emotional content.
In my writing, I don’t try to make everything okay. I think young viewers deserve a chance to connect with characters who experience all the emotions a kid experiences. That is how a story can really resonate with people, young and old. And I think it gives us a chance to develop empathy. After all, how can you be a friend to someone who is sad if you’ve been taught that emotion doesn’t exist? How can you be a friend to someone who has experienced a loss if you’ve never had the chance to think about that yourself, even if your only experience is to put yourself there in a story?
There’s definitely a lot of emotional depth in Gortimer. How did you come up with the idea for the story?
I went back to my own childhood and thought about what moved me. I was part of the last generation of free-range kids, and I used to roam around the neighborhood with my friends. There was a frog we never saw but could occasionally hear croaking under the front porch of one of the apartments. It became something of a mascot, an invisible friend. And then it stopped croaking and whatever became of it we never knew.
One of my favorite books growing up was Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine, which is a collection of short stories full of interesting, quirky characters, and there was an undercurrent of magic. So when it came time to write a TV show, I set out to write something timeless and off-the-beaten path that was very character-driven.
What advice would you give to writers trying to figure out what to write about?
You just need to do something that is uniquely you. Write something that only you can write, from your own experiences, point of view and voice. It will become something very authentic from deep down, and that strikes a chord with people.
In a practical way, if someone is already filling that space, you need to find your own space. That’s what’s going to make you stand out. But that’s also what’s going to keep you involved with the project if someone options it. Create a world that’s not like others out there.
Once you land on an idea and create a world, what advice do you keep in mind when you’re fleshing out the characters and the storylines?
When I was writing Gortimer, I was ruthless about avoiding worn-out tropes. You have to deliberately run in the opposite direction of a cliché. So I would try to put some fresh spin on the stories. There’s no school in the pilot episode. No one stands in front of lockers and talks. That was a deliberate choice. At the start I wanted the focus to be on the bond between our kids and the neighborhood of Normal Street itself, so the front porch serves to visually tie the street and our kids and the homes together. It’s something we really don’t see often and just one of the ways the show stands out.
There’s a lot of rejection in the life of a writer and a lot of down time. What’s your advice for people thinking of giving up?
Invariably, somewhere in the middle of act two of whatever I’m writing at the moment, I take a solemn vow to never write another screenplay as long as I live. I say if you want to give up, give up. If you’re any kind of writer, you’ll find yourself back at the keyboard the next morning anyway, or at least very soon after.
In my case I was ready to switch gears and began outlining on a choose-your-own-adventure style novel during the time Amazon was reviewing my submission. Whatever the outcome, I was prepared to move on and write something else. I just happened to finally get the right script into the right hands at the right time. Sometimes you get lucky early, and sometimes that takes a while. The truth is, when I was really ready, Amazon was there, my opportunity was there.