Real Writers Break In! Kim Goes to Hollywood: From Funeral Home to CHUCKY TV Series
Kim Garland is good people. She is a talented, laser-focused, unrelenting scribe, but, most importantly, at least to me, she is REALLY good people. When the pandemic began, Kim’s good people qualities were put on blast: she was posting on Social Media: Who needs help? Hit me up! When she found herself wrapping up her first writer’s room just as others were pushing to finish up their applications for the various network TV writers’ fellowships, much as she had done the year before, she reached out to me to find out if there was anyone I worked with that I thought she could help with a read or some advice. And she’s done so many other things, speaking to much needed social justice, as well as the vast challenges of difficulties of the times experienced by so many. But I’m not going to list them all because, well, I’d just embarrass her.
In truth, we conducted this interview before the pandemic broke, but decided to hold off on publishing it until things settled down. While we are certainly in a whole new normal it seems like a different world that we live in these days. But publishing it at this time, considering everything that Kim has shown me of herself these past few months beyond her writing skills, seems all the more relevant now.
Where are you from? What was your life experience prior to you setting your sights on writing?
I was born and raised in NYC and grew up in a funeral home family that lived above our funeral home. Even though no one in my family is in the Entertainment Industry, I do come from a family that loves movies, TV, books, music, and theater, so that definitely fueled my desire for a creative career. I studied Creative Writing in college and started as a fiction writer, and even worked in book publishing for a while, but writing for film and TV was my dream so I shifted to screenwriting and haven’t looked back.
For a long time you were in New York. But you weren’t only writing, you were also directing shorts. How did the directing come into the picture?
When I transitioned from fiction to screenwriting, I was struck by the gap between the writer and the audience. In fiction, it’s a fairly direct path from writer to reader, but in film and TV, after the writing is done, there are still so many stages of storytelling before it gets to an audience. I thought I’d be able to wrap my head around screenwriting faster if I went through the entire process — writing a story, shooting it, going through post-production, and screening it — to learn all of the screenwriting lessons I could along the way. After writing and directing four short films, not only did I discover that I love directing and even have a knack for it, but it also helped me a ton as a writer, especially with pacing, tone, and dialogue.
Even though you are a NYC loyalist, you made the move to Los Angeles in 2017. What brought this about?
More than anything, it was an opportunity for adventure. I’d lived my entire life in the heart of NYC (right off Times Square) and I met so many people who’d moved to NY to pursue their artistic dreams. For good or evil, those folks had life-changing adventures. As the years went by, I realized I wanted an adventure of that magnitude too.
So one day (and it really was that random) I texted my husband when I was having a bad day and said, “for this shit we should move to LA.” Why LA? Because I was writing and directing and felt like I was getting nowhere. I figured we could let the desire for adventure get us on the road, and let the hopes for a creative career dictate where we land. Eleven weeks after that text message, my husband, son, dog, and I were driving cross-country. That was two and a half years ago and it was one of the best decisions of our lives. For all of us.
How was the move? Were there any particular things about Los Angeles that surprised you?
The move happened so fast. My husband and I are those super-organized types, so once we made the decision, it was all about planning and no time for worrying. He was able to keep the job he had in NYC and work remotely from LA, but I had nothing but some scripts, some films, and a showreel… and the hope I could find my way.
I came here with an open heart and an open mind and I think that’s what helped with my transition. I wasn’t looking for LA to be anything like NYC, I was looking for something different, so the differences were exciting not disappointing. I traded excellent NYC bagels for a hiking trail five minutes from home. I traded public transportation for dreamy year-round weather. And don’t get me wrong, I lived a fab life in NY eating great bagels while riding the subway, but LA has it’s own vibrant culture and it’s been inspiring soaking up so many new things. Including driving. I didn’t drive before moving to LA (like a typical Manhattanite) but now I even drive!
What were some of the first career-driven initiatives you took on once you made the move?
I knew networking would be key. It was key in my hometown so it would be even more crucial in a place where I knew so few people. Right out of the gate, I joined the female-focused advocacy groups I qualified for, specifically, Women in Film, Alliance of Women Directors, and Women in Media. I jumped right in and attended their classes, panels, and events. I met lots of great people and asked a ton of questions about how to find work in this town. Quickly finding a tribe here helped me so much to settle in and begin to understand the Entertainment landscape in LA because it’s massive and complex compared to what I’d experienced in NY.
Even though you had historically been writing features and directing shorts, you set your sights on TV once you moved to Los Angeles. What brought on this pivot?
A year after moving, I was pretty much living my best SoCal life, except I still didn’t feel like I was making enough forward progress toward breaking in. It was at this time that you (as in me, Lee Jessup, your humble interviewer) wrote this fabulous post, “Career Coach Seeks Promising Screenwriter,” about what type of writer, in a perfect world, you would love to work with next. I read the post and instantly thought, wow, you’re speaking directly to me. I am that hard-working writer you describe and maybe, just maybe, that means you could really help me break in.
I met with you and in our first session, after listening to my story, you challenged me to pick a specific door I wanted to break in through and then put my complete focus on that singular pursuit. Although I’d been writing and directing on the film side, I noticed that my writing style leaned toward serialized storytelling and TV writing seemed like it could be a great match. The only catch was I had zero TV writing samples so it felt like back to square one. But at least this time, I’d found a true mentor in you that I was sorely lacking and (spoiler alert!) working with you changed everything for me.
(sidebar… can I just say… This is beyond humbling! I have the BEST. JOB. EVER!!!!)
You and I immediately crafted a rigorous plan to get me ready to submit to the TV network fellowships nine months later. You recommended classes that would teach me the basics of TV writing while helping me to prep my samples (I chose Script Anatomy for classes and they were amazing).
I spent those nine months writing like it would save my life. I wrote an original one-hour pilot and a TV spec of Westworld. I wrote essays and bios and I made sure to never miss a deadline because the schedule we’d created was so tight. After nine months, I had TV writing samples and everything I needed to apply to fellowships and labs. To this day, I’m still really proud of all I accomplished in those nine months.
In 2019, you submitted to the network TV writing programs for the first time. What was that experience like? And what other programs and fellowships did you submit your work into? The amount of work it takes to submit to those fellowships is pretty mind-blowing and you do it knowing the odds are ridiculously stacked against you, but you can’t help but think, “what if?” And even if you don’t make it in, at least you’ve created new samples and that’s always time well-spent. I submitted all my applications in the spring and then got on with my life. Being the first time I’d submitted to these programs, I knew the odds were even longer for me so I decided to celebrate actually pulling off the submissions and leave any next steps to fate.
As far as network fellowships, I submitted to CBS, WB, and NBC. In addition, I submitted to Film Independent, NHMC, and The Black List & Women in Film Episodic Lab.
Women in Film played a significant role in your breaking in journey. Tell me about it! When I first joined Women in Film, I applied to their Mentorship Program hoping it would be a great way to meet people and get some much-needed career advice. I submitted and didn’t get in. I was so disappointed. But since rejection is a constant occurrence in this field, I licked my wounds and six months later applied again. On the second try, I got in! That mentorship was wonderful and it provided me with everything I’d hoped for, including, having the mentors encourage us to submit to another Women in Film program: The Black List & Women in Film Episodic Lab.
I happily submitted to that lab, feeling so encouraged and supported by Women in Film overall, but little did I know it was that submission that would change my life. Beating crazy odds, I was accepted into the lab and that was the break in opportunity I needed.
When did you find out that you were accepted into The Black List/Women in Film episodic lab?
Just like a Hollywood story, I was first rejected by every single fellowship and lab I’d submitted to and this lab was the last one I was waiting to hear from. At that point, I’d accepted it wouldn’t be my year so I moved on. I planned my next writing samples and created my schedule to be ready to submit to the labs and fellowships again the following year.
To up the drama, I hit a wall shortly afterward where I was losing faith. I was coming up on the ten-year mark into this journey of trying to break in. I’d spent the last year pivoting to TV writing and worried what if that was some kind of reset and it would take ten more years now on this new path. I cried and allowed myself to consider giving up. But I really had put all of my eggs into this career basket and I didn’t want anything else. So I let myself despair for one day and then the next day I got up and started again.
Little did I know that the day I was despairing, in my Spam box was an email from the lab saying I’d made it to the Semi-Finals. Shortly afterward, they told me I’d moved on to the Finals and the interview stage. I prepped so hard for the interview. SO HARD. And I still can’t believe it paid off — I was accepted into the lab along with five other writers. We found out in early September and the lab started October 1.
Can you share with me some of the highlights of participating in the program?
Overall, Women in Film and The Black List ran a dynamite lab. There were six of us and they treated us with such customized attention and care. The mentors they brought in were all successful writers, producers, and showrunners and they boot-camped us to ensure we were ready to make that leap to professional TV writer.
One of the most fun sessions was with Writer/Producer Monica Beletsky. She ran a mock writers room and had us “break” our own episode of Succession (HBO) while Season 2 was still airing. That one session taught me more about how to work in a writers’ room than anything else I’d learned before or after, short of working in an actual room.
Another highlight for me personally, was our session with Showrunner Glen Mazzara. He’s a genre writer. I’m a genre writer. He loves horror. I love horror. I figured we’d be best friends by the end of the night. But he was tough-love with me, maybe precisely because of our similarities, and critiqued my “tell me about yourself” intro in a way that sent me back to the drawing board. Based on his notes, I reworked my verbal personal narrative and that narrative is what I use to this day. It has served me so well in landing reps and taking strong general and showrunner meetings (thank you, Glen!).
Once the deadline article came out announcing your acceptance into the program, things started happening really fast. Did you expect it? And how did everything unfold?
When the Deadline piece dropped, things changed for me within days. I was not expecting it at all — not out of modesty but because I truly didn’t realize how influential this lab was. On the first day of the lab, the participants were announced in Deadline and I heard from manager Daniel Vang (3 Arts Entertainment) that same day wanting to read my sample. He read it right away and we met at the end of the week. We had a great meeting and are a wonderful match. We decided to work together and he started sending my sample out right away.
A few months later, you had your first showrunner interview. What was that like?
The meeting was for Syfy’s upcoming Chucky series, based on the Child’s Play horror franchise, and it couldn’t have been a better match for me, but even so, I prepared very thoroughly. When I met with the showrunner, Don Mancini, I felt fully prepped so I was able to relax enough to enjoy our conversation. We talked Chucky but we also talked horror in general and we shared lots about ourselves personally. It was such a wonderful meeting and I liked Don so much, it was kind of ridiculous. I found out right away that he wanted to hire me, so even though it was still too early for contracts, I knew for a while that there was an excellent chance I’d be getting an offer. And I did!
Chucky is going to wrap up its first season soon… What comes next?
While working on Chucky, my manager sent my sample to agents at Gersh hoping to find us the right partners for this next stage of my career, i.e. job #2 and beyond. The agents I met with at Gersh were great. I signed with them recently and they’re already setting up meetings for me. So hopefully what comes next will be my next gig!
What advice do you have for writers who themselves are looking to make a push for that screenwriting or TV writing career? What have you learned from your journey?
If I boil it all down, probably the most important thing I’ve learned is the value of specificity in everything I do — in my writing, of course, but specificity across the board.
Despite what it often feels like, there are people in this industry who actually want to help us break in but we need to empower them to help us. The best way to empower them, in my opinion, is to be really specific about who you are and what you write. It’s easier to recommend me when someone knows I’m a Latina genre writer from NYC who grew up in a funeral home family, as opposed to just saying I’m a writer. Those specific details have been surprisingly flexible and have made me a good candidate for a range of shows. But if I was worried about being pigeon-holed and refused to be specific to break in, I feel absolutely sure I’d still be waiting. People want to know what they can expect from you and “writer” just won’t cut it.
And lastly, the most cliched advice that is so very true… don’t give up! Write as much as you possibly can, submit to those contests and programs that actually move the needle, network your butt off, and repeat until you’re the one writing your break in story. It really does happen. Work hard and good luck!
Kim Garland was raised in Hell’s Kitchen, NYC, of Puerto Rican descent, and grew up as part of a funeral home family that lived above their funeral home. She worked her way through college covering the night shift at her family’s business and graduated from Columbia University with a degree in Creative Writing.
She’s written and directed several award-winning films and has screened her work at film festivals and comic cons across the country.
In 2019, Kim was selected as a Fellow in The Black List x Women in Film Episodic Lab. She’s represented by 3 Arts Entertainment and The Gersh Agency and is a writer for the new Chucky TV series coming to Syfy.
I love all of your posts… but this one might be my absolute favorite! I’m floored by the generosity of spirit pouring out of Kim’s answers. Thank you thank you thank you!!
Thank you for this, Kim and Lee! SO incredibly inspiring. And, great advice.
Can’t wait to hear what comes next for Kim–and read/watch some of her work.
Will is the key!
Thank you so much Lee for this piece.