Category: GEMA, GEMA Alumni Spotlight

Title:GEMA Alumni Spotlight – Brendan O’Brien (C’99), Feature Film Screenwriter/Producer

What was your first “big break”? Or, what is the most significant experience you have had that has made your success possible?

Getting hired as an assistant to producer Shauna Robertson on The Forty Year Old Virgin. Not only did I meet a bunch of people who I still work with and are some of my best friends, but I also got introduced to Judd’s process of filmmaking and writing. I got to be a fly on the wall and watch everyone work, see how they went about their business, how they pitched jokes and story ideas, how Judd incorporated improv and created an open, collaborative set where literally anyone could throw out an idea and if it had merit or made us laugh, you tried it.

Shauna was the coolest boss — I could ask her anything, tag along to any meeting, and she also told me I could write as much I wanted while I was at work, which was so gracious of her. Also it’s just awesome to work on a movie set. It’s something I urge all young writers to do. Once you show up and see how many people it takes to make a set work, how early in the morning you need to get there, how far everyone drives from, how heavy and hot those lights are, it makes you realize that what you’re writing isn’t good enough and isn’t worth all that trouble.

It forced me to raise my standards and expect more of my writing . Working alongside really smart, creative people who are extremely good at their jobs will do that. Working on Virgin also ultimately led to me being a co-producer on Funny People five or so years later, which was the most amazing professional experience I’ve ever had. It was really exciting to be a part of the creative team, to pitch jokes and help with the script, considering five years earlier I was just the guy standing in the corner not believing all these people got to do this for a living.

What is the most challenging part of your job? What is the most rewarding part?

Probably the most challenging part is having to deal with rejection or being told “no.” You need to be able to separate your work — which quite often is very personal to you — and the business, which quite often necessitates brutal honesty and rejection. The most rewarding part is getting paid to make up stories. And working with friends. I also like the dress code.

What is a current project you are working on that you are excited about?

Gold Diggers, a script my writing partner Andrew Jay Cohen and I wrote for Happy Madison and Paramount, to star Anna Faris. Andrew is going to direct and I’ll be an executive producer.

Are there any ways that you feel Georgetown especially prepared you for your career?

Georgetown prepared me in very direct ways for being a screenwriter. Professor John Glavin provided me with an invaluable foundation for understanding drama and story, and was thefirst person who told me, “You can do this for a living.” He also helped instill a work ethic by having us hand in assignments six days a week to his office (this was pre-email, mind you, you had to walk over your assignments to his office.) He also always preached that “Writers write” and “inspiration is for amateurs” which is still something I think about on days I don’t feel like working. If you want to be a professional writer and you attend Georgetown, you need to take his classes, it’s as simple as that. Georgetown also prepared me in less tangible, but no less important, ways to be a writer. It’s probably a bit of cliche, but I truly believe that Georgetown and the Jesuit tradition teaches its students how to think, how to approach questions from different points of view, to be intellectually curious. It’s an approach and philosophy that I recognize in my work to this day.

What is your best advice to those who are starting out in your field?

Finish things. Whether it’s a one-act play, or a full-length screenplay, if you start writing it, finish it. Even if it isn’t good. Sometimes having a completed script is the only difference between a professional screenwriter and an amateur.

How is the digital world affecting your industry? How are you approaching this transformational change?

It’s obviously having a big effect, but hopefully there will always be a place for the theater experience. I still don’t think there’s a better place to experience a film than in a packed theater, especially for comedy because it’s such a communal experience. Andrew and I have done some stuff on, including a series with James and Dave Franco and one with John Mayer, because it’s really fun and immediate and you can get it out to a lot of people right away. In twenty years we might all watch newly released movies right from our living room, but as a writer and a fan of movies I really hope that’s not the case. Nothing beats the theater for me.

Best Business Advice Received: “If you got in this business to make money, you should have gone to Wall Street instead” and “Fake it till you make it.”

Trait You Most Admire in People: Loyalty. Empathy

Favorite iPhone/iPad/Blackberry/Android App: Whatever allows me to check my fantasy football stats when I’m out with my wife and son on a Sunday.

Favorite Georgetown Professor: Professor John Glavin, Otto Hentz.

Favorite Georgetown Restaurant or Bar: Gotta say the Tombs. Love that bar, food works, and it’s always fun drinking in a basement.

Favorite Georgetown Memory: Too many to choose from. Met my wife and some of my best friends in the world there. I truly loved my college experience at Georgetown and am very proud to say I’m a Hoya.