Veterans in Creative Careers: Kel Symons, Screenwriter (Army)

Kel SymonsKel graduated from the screenwriting program at the American Film Institute in 1997.

His screenplay, If They Move, Kill ‘Em, about director Sam Peckinpah, landed on the Blacklist and The Hit List in 2012. Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon (whose Me, Earl and the Dying Girl won Sundance in 2015) developed the script and is attached to direct.

He wrote a live-action remake of Aladdin for Disney, co-wrote a horror script St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 with Joshua Malkin, for Universal, and is adapting the crime novel Money Shot for producer Mason Novick.

He wrote for the video game based on HBO’s Game of Thrones for Telltale Games and created three comic books published by Image Comics, including critically acclaimed adventure series The Mercenary Sea and the new swords & sorcery series, Reyn.

He produced the 2008 documentary, The Dungeon Masters, directed by Oscar-nominee Keven McAlester. He co-wrote, produced and directed the short documentary Excavating the 2000 Year Old Man with Matthew Buzzell, which premiered on PBS and Turner Classic Movies in 2013.

Find interviews like this one on the Military Veterans in Creative Careers podcast

Justin Sloan: Thank you for agreeing to share your experience with us, Kel. To get us started, what did you do in the military and when did you serve?

Kel Symons: I was in the Army from 1989-1992. I was an 11M – mechanized infantry (which I don’t think they even have a classification for anymore). M2 Bradleys. Though when I got to my first posting in Germany, I was reassigned to the S1 shop – personnel admin – because I knew how to use a computer and could type (this was 1990, when both those skills weren’t as common as they are today).

JS: Do you have any main take-aways from your military time that you feel continue to affect your life, and especially your writing career?

KS: Probably. I think my time in the military helps me cope with frustration – there’s definitely a sense of “This isn’t the worst thing I’ve gone through” when things don’t go the way you want.

JS: When we chatted you mentioned that you knew you wanted to be a writer while you were in the military, but did you believe it could become a reality at the time?

KS: Honestly, I can’t remember. But I didn’t think there was really anything stopping me. If anything, when I got out of the service I had a more defined focus on what I wanted to do – screenwriting – and how I might make it happen.

JS: You attended one of the best film programs there is (AFI). For aspiring writers and filmmakers, would you recommend film school? How do you feel it changed you as a writer?

KS: Possibly. My sense of film school, or even other writing classes, is this: they can’t “teach” you how to write. You either have the skillset or you don’t. But it can be refined.

Before AFI I took a screenwriting course at my local community college in Ft. Myers, FL. That introduced me to the classic Syd Field 3 act structure for screenplays, and the building blocks of writing for film.

The AFI program put me in a room with other writers and an experienced teacher – someone who wrote for film and tv. You would write, critique and be critiqued by the class in a workshop environment. Criticism – or “notes” as it’s probably better known – is an inescapable part of creating something. Good or bad, if you share something you’ve written, you can be sure somebody out there’s got an opinion about it. If you’re ever going to find any success you’re going to have to be able to handle getting notes (or criticism, or outright rejection). Doesn’t mean the notes are always right, but you should be able to process what they have to say. Maybe learn from them. Or at least get use to criticism, because that’s never going away.

I would say though that the biggest takeaway from film school was it got me to Los Angeles, where I feel you absolutely have to be if you’re starting out as a screenwriter. I know there are stories of people who got agents and sold scripts from far-away places, and in this digital age the world is a lot smaller and those opportunities are out there. But I feel if you’re not living in LA or somehow involved in the industry, it’s academic vs. practical experience.

Coming to LA was also my first introduction to the industry – I interned as much as I could, which later led to contacts and job opportunities. Also I can easily say some of my best and closest friends came out of that experience – film school is an environment where you can meet like-minded people. If you’re the film geek back home, and nobody knows what the hell you’re talking about half the time, this is a whole roomful of those same kind of geeks.

JS: I also understand you went to AFI without having gone to undergrad. Do you feel you were at any sort of disadvantage because of this? How about an advantage, such as coming in with life experience and not having spent four years studying something you weren’t interested in?

KS: I don’t know if either apply – certainly no disadvantage. Maybe there’s some advantage to my unique background – at least, unique in Hollywood in that I didn’t go to college and served.

JS: What was the next step after AFI? In those early days, would you change anything about how you approached your goal of becoming a writer, knowing what you know now?

KS: Probably not. I earned what I could as a freelance reader when I was at AFI, and that led to a position as story editor (the lowest exec rank) at a production company after I graduated. At the time I thought I would do that as a day-job, and write on the side. I tried for a little while, but with promotions and eventually running the company, being a development and production exec became a full-time job. It was a career which lasted more than ten years. But I think that experience made me a much better writer. More so than anything I learned in film school. I got to see films made from the ground up, learned how to interact with writers, studio execs, and read everything – some of the best (and worst) scripts around. I improved my craft by being immersed in the world of scripts and writing.

JS: For aspiring writers in LA, how should they go about building their network? Is school the only way, or do you have other recommendations?

KS: School will help, but you can’t beat getting a job in the industry. I interned first at several production companies, which lead to opportunities to PA on productions, and to take on freelance reading assignments. I would say if you want to be a writer, while PAing on a production will give you some insight into how a movie is physically made, unless you have aims to be a director, or line producer, or AD, etc., I’d say you can get your feet wet in production, but find something in development – be it at a studio, production company, or even an agency.

JS: Okay, so you went to AFI, struggled, got your agent, and made the Blacklist. What advice do you have for finding an agent? Do you have any thoughts on what sort of writing samples we should have, such as should our scripts be contained, or does that not matter at this stage? Should we just write what we love?

KS: Ha, I don’t know if that’s quite the trajectory of my career, but okay, if you want boil it down to a sentence, okay. I wish I could tell you there was one way of doing things. There’s not. I can only share my version of what happened.

I had an agent before I went to AFI – honestly can’t remember her name, but I found her by sending out blind submission letters to names on the WGA list of signatory agencies – another way to say they’re considered more or less reputable. This is something the guild provides (or did 20 years ago) even if you’re not in the union. Not much came of that agent relationship. I had another agent when I graduated AFI that my writing teacher introduced me to. That got me a few meetings, but nothing really came of it (didn’t help she was convicted of embezzling her client’s funds shortly thereafter – probably a good thing I never made any money from her, I guess.)

As I said, there’s no one route to take. No roadmap. But you have to have a good – probably great – sample. Something that really stands out. A network of relationships helps – I got my manager because I had friends put in a good word for me, which helps a lot. These relationships are forged in the industry, and in Los Angeles. So again, you want to be a screenwriter, the best way to make that happen is to be here in the center of the action. It’s not the only way, for sure, and it’s no guarantee you’ll get anywhere. But if you’re looking for something to increase your odds, that’s it.

And it never hurts to have a little good luck.

Finally, yes, write what you love – at least as a spec. Passion comes through in writing and makes it a richer experience, for you and the reader. There will be plenty of chances to write something on assignment that might not be something you’re passionate about – writing is still a job, and sometimes it’s work. Never try to “write for the market” – because the market is quicksilver – just when you think you have a handle on it – you know what Hollywood is looking for – something changes and it slips away.

JS: And when you made the Blacklist, what went through your head? Did you feel that was a major point in launching your career?

KS: I was certainly honored. Anyone would be. Though I have to credit my agents and managers for launching my career. They put my script in people’s hands. Got me meetings around town. This was months before I made the Black List – and I wouldn’t have gotten that, if it weren’t for all those people reading and liking my stuff, first.

JS: Can you share anything about upcoming projects?

KS: I just finished something for Disney and am about to start adapting a book that my manager is going to produce, called Money Shot. And I’m working on outlining and researching a new spec I hope to write this summer.

JS: That is great! Before we sign off, do you have one last piece of advice for aspiring writers, and especially for military veterans looking to make the plunge?

KS: Talent is key. Opportunity and access help. But perseverance is absolutely necessary. Be prepared to weather a lot of rejection and criticism, learn what you can from those moments, and keep writing and trying.


These interviews, along with the author’s advice, are available in the book Military Veterans in Creative Careers. 

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