Julie Ann Sipos
Whatever happens next, simply by virtue of having made the defining journey of my life, I’ll never have to look back and wonder, what if?
Unlike other Hollywood aspirants who don’t have much to lose either way, I did not arrive in town a fresh-faced innocent with nothing to call my own but a photogenic backside and a boyfriend named Bubba leading my management team. I abandoned what, by all appearances, had been a dream life: A successful travel writer, I was the original accidental tourist dutifully navigating the globe. Based in Miami, I published popular guidebooks and self-syndicated hundreds of newspaper and magazine articles.
Though responsible research dictated I eat the free shrimp and sample the umbrella drinks, it became increasingly challenging to hide my only real interest in shellfish: the famous lobster scene from Annie Hall. Rum intrigued me strictly when Erroll Flynn slugged it straight from the jug. I wanted to create the next insouciante pirate role for Johnny Depp, not listen to some overtly cheerful sort with a fake parrot leading another cheesy Caribbean museum tour.
Before moving to California, I had a whirlwind romance with a Croatian cruise ship maitre d’ that felt vaguely cinematic, but our hasty marriage amounted to a major indiscretion that could’ve held me back for years. On assignment in my husband’s hometown of war-torn Dubrovnik, I happened upon a copy of Syd Field’s Screenplay at an English language bookstore. Wildly inspired, rather than recording the actual events of my trip I went home and wrote the Hollywood version.
Armed with my completed script, I gave the big Croat the boot, severed the rest of the ties that bound and took my shot out West. In no time at all, the cruel hand of fate delivered a protracted series of near misses: the prestigious fellowship that was just out of reach, the coveted studio apprenticeship falsely promising to result in highly overpaid employment. Ultimately, in exchange for my life savings, my dwindling youth and any likelihood of finding new love with a wage-earning adult, I returned to school. By graduation I’d amassed a coterie of inappropriate young drinking buddies and a lifetime of student loan debt, earning a fairly useless screenwriting Master’s in Fine Arts degree conferred upon me by Arnold Schwarzenegger of all people.
My life suddenly became a nonstop merry-go-round of studio pitch meetings, passing celebrity interest, seductive commissary lunches and heart-in-mouth script auctions. I was often invited to develop major studio blockbusters—without any guarantee of pay. Much like the new high-priced call girl in town, an emerging screenwriter can expect to lay out plenty of freebies before somebody meets her quote.
My “big break” arrived in the form of a screenwriting assignment at Universal Pictures for two-time Oscar-nominated actor/producer Edward Norton. Though the project was never produced, I lived off the proceeds for several years—eventually going out on strike with my guild.
While picketing a Desperate Housewives location one wee morning, I pondered a looming image of Wonder Woman greeting the day from an overhead studio water tower. Surrounded by hundreds of out-of-work film and television writers, I remembered that my advanced degree had also been in “digital media”—a major point of contention in our eventual settlement with the studios. I soon landed an interactive producer job at the The Walt Disney Company, using my on-the-job training in transmedia storytelling to strike out on my own.
I never gave up on my dream, I just gave myself a few “story notes,” as we in the business call our little tweaks. While cultivating an online digital entertainment clientele, I continue to seek full-time work and write feature screenplays and television pilots on spec. I teach screenwriting part-time at the college level, attend a weekly writer’s group, and “like” on Facebook my assorted film school pals’ series commitments with somewhat transparent hopes of joining their ranks someday. The point is, my story isn’t over—and nobody gets to write the rest of it but me.
Ironically, my long struggle to fashion a second career in the entertainment industry is one rarely seen in the movies, where in very short order the girl gets the job, the guy and the Vera Wang wedding ensemble over a thinner rival with younger looking skin. What big screen career challenge can’t be conquered by a whitened smile and a plucky attitude? What weight problem won’t spontaneously correct itself by the end of a charming musical montage? Armpit stains, broken heel, panty lines? Somebody call wardrobe! This girl’s real life shortcomings serve as daily proof that Hollywood’s reliable sense of justice owes itself mainly to our famous way with illusion.
Happily, though, along my quest to become Rocky, the underdog defying the odds, I learned instead that I’m Dorothy. None of that winning nonsense mattered much to begin with. What mattered was making it all the way to freaking Oz and hanging with the wizard! Whatever happens next, simply by virtue of having made the defining journey of my life, I’ll never have to look back and wonder, what if?