UTD alums VJ (BA’02) and Justin (BA’06) Boyd took risks after graduating by moving to Los Angeles to pursue their dreams of screenwriting and producing. Since they moved, the brothers have gone on to work on series such as “Justified,” “S.W.A.T” and “Channel Zero” alongside industry veterans including Shemar Moore (“Criminal Minds”) and Rutger Hauer (“Blade Runner”). The pair sat down with The Mercury to discuss their paths to success and future plans.
Q: When did you first get interested in screenwriting?
VJ: When I was a young kid I loved movies, especially sci-fi action movies, as most kids do, and when I was saw behind the scenes and “making of” specials about “Star Wars,” I decided I wanted to be a part of making movies when I grew up. At first, I focused on special effects because that’s what interested me most as a child, but later I got some understanding that the person most associated with making a movie is the director, so I thought perhaps I’d be a director. When I was 11, I discovered a love for writing short stories, so then a few years later it clicked that I could combine the two and write screenplays. I wrote my first screenplay when I was 16. It wasn’t very good, but I finished it, which is an important step. So many projects writers start go uncompleted.
Justin: I came to screenwriting later than my brother, who’d been writing since we were kids. We grew up with a real love for film and television, and I think the fact that we were exposed to alot of classic films from an early age really helped hone our sense for storytelling, the rhythm of dialogue, etc. But even so I always thought of screenwriting as VJ’s thing until sometime around 2008 when we co-wrote a screenplay together that went on to win first prize at the Screamfest horror festival. That’s when I started taking seriously the possibility of actually making money from writing scripts.
Q: You both pursued other careers before turning to writing and producing; what inspired the change?
VJ: I didn’t have the resources to move to LA when I first graduated, nor did I have any idea where I’d start if I did. Looking back, I probably would have been okay, but there was still a part of me that was listening to what others said about being realistic and getting a normal job. I had interned at IBM for two years, so they offered me a job in sales after I graduated, and I took it. I had some success there for a few years, which kept me comfortable and delayed my switching careers. I always wanted to make the break though, and after 6 years at IBM I finally felt I had the resources to comfortably do so.
Justin: Before coming to LA, I was working on a PhD in philosophy at DePaul University in Chicago. Then I woke up one day and realized that I was actually a better writer than I was an academic — and anyway, screenwriting is a lot more fun than trying to publish papers on obscure philosophical arguments that no one will ever read. There’s a lot more money in it, too.
Q: How did you get your start in Hollywood?
VJ: I got an assistant job on the TV show “The Beast” in 2008 just after I moved out here. I didn’t realize at the time how lucky I was to get an assistant job in a writers’ office so quickly. Friends I made on that job then helped me get my next two assistant jobs.
Justin: My first Hollywood gig was as the Writer’s PA for season one of the TV show “Snowfall.” Shortly after that job ended, I was fortunate to get my writing sample in the hands of Nick Antosca, who’d worked with my brother in the past and was now running his own show. He liked it and hired me as a writer on seasons three and four of “Channel Zero.”
Q: Did you have moments of doubt when making your career changes? What kept you going?
VJ: There was a time I was without a job for a number of months and living partially off of credit cards which was pretty uncomfortable, but I never doubted I’d make it if I stuck to it. Irrational confidence, perhaps, but I also knew that whether it took two years or ten years or even longer I was not going to quit trying.
Justin: Not really, no. I’d made a similar move five years before, when I left a stable, but boring, corporate job to go to grad school. In both cases I knew I was ready for a change and knew I would always regret it if I didn’t take the leap. I think to succeed in an industry like this one, you have to be self-assured and a willing to take risks. Despite the cliche of the timid, self-doubting writer, I have yet to meet a successful screenwriter who isn’t quite confident, even a bit arrogant, about their own abilities.
Q: What has been your most memorable experience as screenwriters?
VJ: For me it’s probably having my first episode of television air and seeing my name in the credits on TV. Another one that sticks out is when Justin and I won the Screamfest screenwriting competition. Screamfest is a horror film festival and I got to attend the awards dinner and go up to the microphone and accept my award at the same dinner Ti West and other successful filmmakers were being honored. The star of “The Human Centipede” was at my table, before anyone really knew what that movie was. I’m probably still facebook friends with him.
Justin: So far it would have to be seeing Rutger Hauer read lines that I wrote in “Channel Zero: Butcher’s Block.” I’m a big science fiction fan, and “Blade Runner” is one of my favorite films, so that was awesome and pretty surreal.
Q: How do you think your time at UTD helped you in your careers?
VJ: Tony Daniel, who was an instructor at the university for a time, became a mentor of mine, taught me a lot about writing and was the one who encouraged me to take the leap and move to LA. He also introduced me to the invaluable habit of workshopping my material with other writers. I learned something from all the humanities classes I took at UTD, both as an undergrad and as a grad student.
Justin: UTD is where I really started to take the craft of screenwriting seriously. I wrote my first screenplay there, in a course taught by the sci-fi novelist Tony Daniel. He, along with professor Clay Reynolds, helped sharpen my storytelling sense and encouraged me to persevere and believe in my own abilities as a writer.
Q: What’s your most memorable experience at the university?
VJ: Honestly, that would be winning an intramural flag football championship. Without UTD intramurals, I might not have discovered what’s become one of my lifelong passions: flag football. Also perhaps the moment I left my last final my senior year. I was a business major for some reason, so was delighted to be finished.
Justin: Probably the first philosophy course I took with professor Charles Bambach. It challenged me intellectually in a way I’d never experienced before and taught me to think in new and creative ways. The passion for philosophical thought that it inspired in me did a lot to shape the person — and the writer — I am today.
Q: What advice would you have for students looking to pursue careers in entertainment?
VJ: As far as writing goes, and I think the same can be said of acting, perhaps to an even greater extent, if you can think of anything else you’d be happy doing with your life, do that thing instead. It’s incredibly difficult to make a living writing fiction of any kind. If you do pursue it, make sure you’re always writing something new. Writers write.
Justin: Read a lot of scripts, write every day and forget the idea that screenwriting is something you need a degree in to do professionally. Unlike a lot of other careers, there’s not really a set educational or career path to become a screenwriter. Film school degrees or screenwriting MFAs may give you time to dedicate to your craft and can offer useful networking opportunities but in and of themselves, they aren’t going to make you a great writer. Curiosity, empathy and a love for storytelling are far more important.
Q: What’s one lesson from UTD you carry with you today?
VJ: I don’t know that I can zero in on one lesson in particular. I learned a lot about what I was capable of through the challenges I faced both academically and socially. I’m thankful for my time at UTD.
Justin: I’d say it’s the basic story structure I learned from Tony Daniel. He used to pass out little cards with it written down: “Hero faces a problem; hero tries to solve the problem; that attempt to solve the problem leads to worsened problems; hero faces these worsened problems and either solves them or is solved by them.” It’s amazing how you can pretty much fit any story into that structure, and I still refer to it to this day.
Q: What are your current plans for the future career-wise?
VJ: My goal is to create a TV series that makes it on the air. I’ve sold and shot two pilots, but neither show got picked up to series.
Justin: Ultimately it would be great to work on a project with my brother. We’ve co-written a few feature scripts, but nothing that’s sold yet. Right now we’re kicking around a few ideas for TV shows to develop, so fingers crossed. I’d say my ultimate goal career wise is to create and run my own TV showS, and eventually get to a place where I can spend time developing small, interesting genre features.