Virgil Williams was working as a staffer on Criminal Minds when his agency sent him a stack of books to consider adapting into a feature screenplay. Although he had a successful TV career, Williams came to LA to write movies and was looking for the chance to cross over. One of the books he received was a Hillary Jordan novel about two families struggling for survival in the Mississippi Delta near the end of World War II. Years later, Williams (with co-writer/director Dee Rees) received Writers Guild and Academy Award nominations for his work on Mudbound. How did he do it? Williams shares what it took to make the move to the big screen and offers advice for those who wish to follow a similar path.
Question: “What’s your advice to writers currently staffed on TV who are looking to transition into feature writing?”Virgil Williams: If you want to transition from being on a TV staff to writing features, there are four things you’ve got to do: 1) Write a feature. 2) Make it undeniably good. 3) Put forth effort—at writing well, at getting your feature made, at creating mutually beneficial creative relationships. 4) Pray and have faith.
Writing a feature is a Herculean marathon. And getting it made is a miracle. But if you write, write well, and keep writing, if you grind, work, and believe, if you keep your effort and faith sustained...it will work
Those four things are the ONLY things you can actually control. I wrote my first produced feature, Mudbound, while I was on staff on a show called Criminal Minds. And I wrote my heart out. Then I rewrote my heart out until it was undeniable. For the next four years it was about effort, prayer, and faith. Then after an exhaustive search, we found a director. Then four years after that we shot that film and I got nominated for an Oscar.
Easy, right? Wrong. It was extremely tough. Beyond tough. Writing a feature is a Herculean marathon. And getting it made is a miracle. But if you write, write well, and keep writing, if you grind, work, and believe, if you keep your effort and faith sustained...it will work. One day, it will work.
Now go write! I can’t wait to see it!
Send us your questions about the craft, job hunting, your career, or Guild service (under 100 words, please) with the subject “Mentor,” and we’ll send them to an established screen or TV writer to answer. Questions might be edited for space or clarity and will be published anonymously. WGAW mentors provide informal career advice and are not expected to read scripts, give notes, hear pitches, or help find representation or work.
(This article originally appeared in the April 9, 2021 issue of the WGAW Connect newsletter)