Real Writers Breaking In: Chandus’s Winding Road (Reps! Programs! Lists!) to Screenwriting Success
I still remember the first time I met Chandus Jackson. I had been invited to visit a writers group he was a part of, that was meeting on weekends at the picnic tables outside of a popular store/eatery. Chandus was on one end of the table; I was on the other. But what I noticed instantly was his prevalent curiosity. There was something about him. Openness? Positivity? Determination? All of it. I wanted to get to know his journey. To my delight, we started working together a few months after, which has granted me a front row seat for his breaking-in story.
In some ways, Chandus had long ago broken in. After all, he was repped, he was taking meetings, pitching takes, rubbing elbows with the industry regularly. But his story is one of perseverance and consistency, near-misses, let downs, frustrations, dust-your-self-off-and-keep-going sort of dedication. And he’s allowed me in on all of it. Which is why, when he reached out to let me know that he staffed on CBS’s BULL a couple of weeks ago, he made my week, let alone my day.
For most writers, breaking in takes so much longer than anyone thought it would. But Chandus was able to do just that, which is why I’m excited to share this interview with you guys today.
To set the stage for everyone reading this, could you tell me about your life journey prior to arriving at screenwriting?
I had a life in the military and finance prior to screenwriting. Specifically, I worked in investment banking and M&A (Mergers & Acquisitions) in New Jersey and New York before moving to Los Angeles.
You came to L.A. knowing few people in the industry, and yet now – and really ever since I met you in 2013 or 2015 – you’re one of the most connected people I know. How did you build your community and network?
I met several writers through Tawnya Bhattacharya’s Televisionary workshop, many of these writers I still keep in touch with to this day. I’ve also met writers and execs through various programs that I’ve participated in such as… the Disney program, PGA workshop and Universal. I’ve managed to build a strong community of entertainment professionals over the years by just staying in touch and genuinely trying to help other creatives whenever I can. By the way, I think we first met in late 2014 at a mutual friend’s writing group that I was part of at that time.
You participated in Universal’s Emerging Writers Fellowship (now Universal Writers Program). What was that experience like, and how did you capitalize on it and make the most of it?
I had a positive experience with the program and gained much insight into the inner workings of the studio development progress. One way that I was able to capitalize on the program was to sign with an agency coming right out of Universal since I already had a manager. I also started working with you around that time which was invaluable as I wanted to continue the momentum once I left the program.
Your script, THE MUTI KILLINGS, was named to The Hit List in 2015. What is the prestige list experience like, and what sort of doors does it open?
Making one of these lists is great. I think for MUTI it was validation that this script was special, and that this story should certainly be told. Around this same time MUTI was also optioned by Djimon Hounsou and we worked on it together to tighten the story. I found the experience overall positive as it did open more doors on the producer and representation front.
For a long time, you had been a repped writer, had opportunities to compete for writing assignments, take meetings, take pilots and feature specs out to the professional space through your reps, and be an up-and-coming writer in the industry for all intents and purposes. And yet, you’ve also had to make a living, take care of your family and work a “normal” job while pursuing your screenwriting career. How were you able to balance the two?
The short answer is it’s very hard to balance it all. It takes a lot of planning and commitment to manage writing goals and family obligations. Still, consistency has been the key for me as I try to set aside time to write every single day (really… every day) which helps me stay on top of my writing goals and helps me stay focused.
In order to arrive at success, a writer offer has to endure many disappointments. You’ve been remarkable in your ability to keep going, which has, obviously, paid off. For those writers who are reading this who might be feeling discouraged, could you tell me how you managed to always keep it going despite the disappointments?
I decided a long time ago that I was going to stick with this no matter what. The goal, for me, has always been about sustaining a career as a working writer whether it be for features or TV. That said, I’ve always tried to look at the ups and downs along this journey as just preparation for that goal. Still, managing disappointment, at times, has been tough. I try to give myself time to grieve and time to heal if that’s what’s needed. I also take an assessment of what went right and what went wrong and ask for feedback if that’s possible. I think feedback is crucial as rejection can be demoralizing. There have been times though when everything has gone great – the pitch meeting, the showrunner meeting and still an offer didn’t materialize. When this has happened, I remind myself that this is just part of the journey and I try to stay focused on the end goal.
You’ve now been managed by Jeff Portnoy for a good number of years, were previously with Tanya Cohen (who was an agent at WME and is now a manager with Range), and are now with Michael Kolodny at Kaplan Stahler. I would love to hear more about your representation journey. How did you first come to be repped? In your experience, what makes for a good rep/writer relationship? And what do you expect from your reps?
My representation journey has been long and circuitous, and I can count as least a half-dozen managers and agents that I’ve had on my team over the years. In the end, my one big takeaway about representation is that it is all about the specific manager/agent and the name of the management company/agency is secondary.
A good rep/writer relationship is all about setting and managing expectations. This goes for both sides. And this includes discussions about staffing, feature/TV development, writing output, etc. With my current manager, I realized that I wanted more input on my development and Jeff/Bellevue was a perfect fit for that. Jeff has a keen understanding of what works and what doesn’t and we’ve gained a good shorthand of how to work together. When I made the push to change agencies, Jeff was instrumental in helping me strategize and find the right fit. My focus in signing with Kaplan was due to their strong staffing reputation. The team that I signed with – Varun and Michael — have been outstanding in helping me secure two offers to staff in our first outing.
In late 2020, you landed your first official Open Writing Assignment (OWA). How did you get this assignment, and what sort of work goes into landing it?
This all happened after I signed with my agents Michael Kolodny and Varun Monga at Kaplan Stahler. The OWA was a rewrite of a script from the team behind the film THE SHALLOWS which came out several years ago. Varun had presented the OWA to me and it felt right at home given my military background. My time in the Universal Writers Program had prepared me well for developing my take or rather pitch for the project. The only thing that I wasn’t so keen about was pitching over Zoom which felt a little foreign to me however after the pitch was over I just knew that I had nailed it. Varun later called to say that the producers wanted to make an offer.
You just staffed on BULL. Have you always wanted to get into a writer’s room? And, as we all know how hard getting your first staff writing position is, what sort of stars had to align in order to make that happen?
I moved to LA to make movies. That’s not to say that I didn’t want to get into a writer’s room at some point, but features were always my focus. I realized a few years back that I needed to balance my creative output to include TV pilots given the quality programming and opportunities in TV. After signing with Kaplan in 2020 everything just came together really fast and I ended up securing two offers to staff.
What’s next for you?
Focusing on the staffing job that’s in front of me and then finishing the OWA.
What are some of the important lessons you’ve learned along your screenwriting journey?
Enjoy the journey. And know that this is indeed a process. Take time to recharge. Take time out for self. While this is an amazing career, it’s so important to take the time to focus on other things outside of the industry. For me, that’s been spending quality time with family and friends.
Chandus Jackson is an award-winning screenwriter who has participated in the inaugural Universal Writer’s Fellowship, Disney Feature Writing Program, and the Producers Guild of America Diversity Workshop. Prior to his work in finance, Chandus served as an Army Air Defense officer and was stationed in Germany and later Japan where he ran logistics for PACOM (Pacific Command). He is repped by Kaplan Stahler and Bellevue Productions and is a writer on the CBS show BULL.