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Screenwriter Chases His Dream

Nicholl Fellowship semifinalist refuses to give up on “Tolltaker.”

“Starlight

I will be chasing it

Starlight

Until the end of my life

I don’t know if it’s worth it anymore”

    — "Starlight" by Muse

Every time I hear that song on the radio, I think of lovers and screenwriters. I think of people chasing their dreams despite the odds. I think of Steve Janas.

Screenwriters may be the biggest dreamers in Hollywood. Their job is to sit in front of a computer screen and create. It’s just them and their imagination. It can lead to a form of tunnel vision.

The town is full of writers who cling to that one perfect script, positive that it’s their ticket to immortality. In some cases, these writers are just deluded. But others really do have stories worth telling. Some are even very special — which brings me to Steve Janas.

A few years ago, I got the notion I could be a manager. I worked well with writers and gave killer notes. I figured it was just a matter of signing a few screenwriters and banging on doors.

Note to future managers: Unless you already personally know 20 people in agencies, production companies or studios, you won’t get very far.

Anyway, I got the list of Nicholl fellowship semifinalists and sent off some emails to various writers.

One of the scripts that caught my eye was "Tolltaker" by Steve Janas. It was a heartfelt coming-of-age story about a boy in the 1970s whose father is MIA in Vietnam. I loved it.

I contacted Steve and got to know him a little better and got some of the story behind the story.

Steve was part owner of Reel Stuff Entertainment in Philadelphia. He and his partner made short documentaries for cable TV outlets such as HGTV and the Travel Channel.

The screenplay was based on a novel I had never heard of, written by a man named James Sneddon. Sneddon, it turned out, had tragically lost his longtime battle with drug addiction. He died just before the Nicholl semifinalists were announced.

I was stunned by the news and felt an added weight of responsibility. I could only imagine what Steve felt. He had known Sneddon through his half-brother. That’s when "Tolltaker" became more than just a good script. As Steve put it, the story was James Sneddon’s one shot at a legacy.

I gave it my best effort, but as I later learned, trying to get one particular script sold in Hollywood is like trying to hit the lottery. Soon after that, the company I was working for then closed and I was preoccupied. I had to give up my managing sideline and lost touch with Steve for a few years.

Flash forward to today. I started doing research for a freelance article on indie filmmaking. One of the people I reached out to was Steve. I thought he’d be furious with me for dropping him, but instead he was as friendly and as enthusiastic as ever.

It turned out he had not given up on "Tolltaker." He had gone ahead to produce and direct it himself (albeit in a 23-minute short format.) I talked to him for the article and got the details. It was great speaking with him again.

Talking about "Tolltaker," I could feel the old electricity. Steve had completed his shoot and was in post-production (he was expecting to have the film locked by early September.) James Sneddon’s book was finally coming to life.

Things just seemed to fall into place for Steve. He completed a series of shorts for the Discovery Channel. He used that huge check to fund "Tolltaker." He wound up shooting at the exact same drainpipe where, as a child, James and his brother would play and tell ghost stories to each other.

There were some glitches. His star, a young boy named Cullen, was moving to Switzerland at the end of the shoot. The day after they finished shooting, he was on a plane. So much for pick-ups.

Steve blogged about the whole process on www.thetolltakermovie.com. He’s even cut together a trailer for the short and put together a few short behind-the-scenes clips that are on YouTube.

But what’s the endgame? What can a short do? Steve plans to take it to festivals. Will somebody see it and finally realize what a great story it is?

The industry likes to say they’re always looking for new voices. What they really mean is new voices they can sell, or, more accurately, new voices they can sell without having to do too much work. So what does that mean for "Tolltaker"?

“As long as it is appreciated, that’ll be enough,” Steve told me.

Good attitude to have.

Meanwhile, he’s already hard at work on his next project, a true story about an addict who committed suicide. Sounds depressing, but Steve tells me it’s a great story, another piece of starlight to chase after.

Watch the Tolltaker trailer: 

 

Michael Lee is a novel writer, blogger and freelance journalist living in L.A. He's been a judge for the prestigious PAGE Awards and blogs about his two biggest passions, screenwriting and food, at Screenwriting Foxhole and To Cook and Eat in L.A., respectively. Lee is also a co-author of "The Insider's Guide to Screenwriting" and has just published his first novel, "My Frankenstein."