Chrys Balis Talks about Starting Out, Rewriting, and her Dream Project

Hollywood often seems like an untouchable world, dominated and populated by a nameless elite culture that “does lunch” and drives all those fancy cars I see on my way to work. For many aspiring screenwriters, breaking into the business can seem like an impossible task, akin to getting the Royal Family to have you over for tea. But the truth is that, equipped with the right tools, aspiring screenwriters do break into the industry (our list of Success Stories is proof!) One such example is Writers’ Program instructor Chrys Balis. Once a Writers’ Program student herself, she won the UCLA Extension Screenplay Competition, got an agent, and now makes her living as a screenwriter and teacher. When we chatted recently (via cyberspace of course), she shared some of her advice for aspiring screenwriters and her dreams for the future.

Writers’ Program: We get a lot of calls from students who dream of becoming successful screenwriters. What advice do you have for students just starting out? How did you get your start?

Chrys Balis: I got my start through winning the UCLA Extension Screenplay Competition. Back then (1996), there were only a handful of highly reputable competitions, and having completed my script through the Writers’ Program, I was eligible to submit. It was my first and only script at the time. And then, once I had won, interest and heat started coming in. Mind you, the script was not a commercial piece and no one who read it actually wanted to buy it (the most it ever got was a couple of options later in its life), but it showcased whatever raw but promising talent I had. I was working as a personal assistant to an actress at the time, and I finally had some heat under me to make it worth asking her to ask her agency, William Morris, if someone might want to read me. Sure enough, her agent passed it on to a junior agent on her way up, who I happened to have had dinner with about a year before due to some random mutual friend connection. It’s one of those things I tell students–network any which way you can, even if you don’t know you’re networking. Make sure to be as much of a part of the going-out LA scene as possible. It’s amazing how many connections in the industry one makes that way. They may not pay off at that very moment in a “Hey, I have a script, wanna buy it?” sort of way, but treat them as points on a web, bringing you possibilities of further connections until the one who can do something for you shows up.

My other piece of advice is to use time and academic effort wisely to create a viable product that will foremost be a calling card sample to get you work and, secondarily, a possible product for someone to purchase. I know it seems like it should be the reverse, but the truth is most new writers’ specs become their calling cards to other work. Mine has never been made, but it got me my first writing job and several others until other scripts I wrote ended up being even stronger representations of my work. Once you have made your best efforts to network in any way your situation and location allow you to AND you have a kickin’ script, then you need representation. Call me old school, but I’m a firm believer that no one will take a new writer seriously until an agent has. Once I was hooked up with William Morris I was put on meet-and-greets and put on projects for which I’d go in and pitch to the Big Leaguers. I promise you, no matter how much networking I did, there was no way I would have been given such opportunities without an agent.

WP: You frequently teach intermediate and advanced rewrite classes. Why is rewriting essential to the process of writing a script? What is your favorite part about teaching these classes?

CB: Rewriting is writing, not the other way around. The first draft of anything may have spark but little else. It’s much easier to craft story once you have something in front of you, even if you end up eventually scrapping all of it. I particularly enjoy rewrite classes because so much of the magic happens at this stage. And my favorite part of the experience is twofold– the times when you can really talk about story on an elevated level with a student who “gets it” and the moment that student then has a creative epiphany as a result. It is THE reason I teach. It’s kind of a high.

WP: What projects are you working on at the moment? Do you have any “dream projects” that you hope to write someday? If you had unlimited financing and total creative control, what movie would you write?

CB: At the very moment, meaning the next 2 months, I am in pure teaching mode as I have been asked to create a course for writers in Kazakhstan through director Timur Bekmambetov’s (Wanted) company. He’s based out of Moscow now but wants to teach writers in Kazakhstan how to write specifically for film. Who knew? It starts in a couple of weeks (and will require back and forth translations into Russian). That plus two UCLA Extension courses and my plate is full. In terms of passion projects I’m dipping into the world of short story writing. The older I get the more I’m drawn to long-form writing. Again, who knew? There’s a possibility of documentary work in the Summer but at this point I’m just worrying about brushing up on my Russian and buckling my seat belt.

If I had unlimited financial and creative control, I would probably do the movie version of my grandfather’s life. Made a refugee at age 9 after the Turkish massacre and ousting of Greeks from Asia Minor, his was an incredible story of survival. He went on to lie about his age and enlist to fight in WWI and barely survived only to become a father and husband who went to impossible lengths to keep his family alive during Germany’s brutal occupation of Greece during WWII. Unfortunately, it’s one of those stories no one will ever do unless it’s a book first so I guess I have a lot more long-form writing ahead of me!

Chrys is teaching Intermediate Rewrite (Online) and Advanced Rewrite (Online) this spring.

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Katy Flaherty is the Program Representative for Creative Writing Onsite and Screenwriting Online Courses (Interim). Write to her at kflaherty@uclaextension.edu.

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