Chad Handley on Hitting The Black List, the Importance of Writers Groups, and (Not) Moving to LA

by | Dec 14, 2021

North Carolina film and TV writer, Chad Handley, didn’t always know he wanted to work in film, but he knew a good visual when he saw one. In the ninth grade, he loved drawing, so when his teacher announced that the class could do their next book report in images, everyone thought he’d turn in a few sketches. Chad, however, went big. He’d just gotten access to a camcorder, so he and a funny friend did the West Side Story as a puppet show. It went better than he imagined. “They loved it. The class was in shambles for the rest of the day.” His teacher though wasn’t convinced. He laughs, “She said she knew we worked hard, but it went way off-topic. I think I got a D.” 

Film School (The Very Best Trade School There Is)

Undeterred, Chad continued to pursue film and attended the University of North Carolina School of the Arts for film. There he attended classes and made projects with the likes of David Gordon Green, Craig Zobel, and Danny McBride. Not only did he make great connections, Chad argues that film school is the best vocational school there is. “You’re there to learn real tangible skills. You can become an editor, a gaffer, a sound technician. These are great, high-paying, union jobs. Ignore the pie in the sky stuff–like whether or not Spike Lee or Spielberg went to school–and focus on acquiring the skills to make real money in this industry.” Knowing what production is like and the job of the people actually making movies is an important thing for a writer to understand. “It’s way more than just famous directors.” 

Getting Serious About Writing

After receiving his degree, he floated a bit and ended up at the Screenwriting MFA program at Hollins University. “That first summer, I wrote a 30 ROCK spec and a whole feature in six weeks. It made me realize I’d been lazy.” So, he kicked it into high gear and started writing 3-4 features a year. At Hollins, Chad met ProPath’s own Tim Albaugh. “He probably doesn’t even remember first meeting me, but before he was even a professor at Hollins, he visited one of the classes and said some very nice things about my script. So, I knew he had good taste.” 

Over the next few years, Chad took every class with Tim he could. “I don’t really think you need a lot of screenwriting books, but you need to read scripts, write, and have someone in your corner who will give you good but fair criticism. That’s Tim. He’s kind and professional, and never mean, but he’s not going to sugarcoat it. You need that as a writer.” He laughs, “Don’t go for the Simon Cowell type who’ll break your spirit. Work with someone that will give you kind but honest feedback so you get better.”

Another great thing about taking classes was deadlines. “Being a working writer means deadlines. It means multiple deadlines for multiple projects. Putting yourself under someone’s tutelage before you’re getting paid gives you those deadlines. You don’t want to be working on the same project year after year. In this business, you don’t get ten years, you get 2-3 months. Discipline, honest feedback, and working, that muscle of hitting deadlines is the best thing you can do to learn how to be a professional writer.” 

One thing that kept Chad going before he started landing paid gigs was his writing group. “You need deadlines and feedback; you’ll get both if you find a great group.” His group, however, takes it a step further. “We give each other consequences. If you don’t hit your deadline, you have to give up something big. Like, once they said that if I didn’t hit my deadline, I’d have to sell my gaming console and not buy another one for a year.” Someone else in the group would’ve had to donate $500 to an opposing political group had they not hit theirs. Needless to say, everyone in the group consistently met their deadlines.

Honing his craft catapulted Chad to the next level. A western he wrote, BLOOD WILL TELL, landed in the Nicholl top 50, and from that script, David Gordon Green hired him to write another. Then RIGHTEOUS GEMSTONES lost NAPOLEAN DYNAMITE scribe Jared Hess, to a directing gig, and Chad got the job. That’s another reason film school is so important, “David Gordon Green and his producer Julian Lawitschka recommended me for the job, and I knew the co-head writers as well.” From there, Chad’s career really took off and he’s since worked on projects for Disney+, Netflix, and Universal. Along the way, he wrote THE DARK. 

Making The Black List

Chad laughs a little when talking about The Black List. “People keep asking me, ‘So, now do you think someone will buy your script?’ And I have to tell them, ‘It’s already sold!’” Chad worked hard on the script, going through 4-5 drafts before taking it out. So, it was a nice moment of recognition. He says, “You don’t get to have a lot of public wins as a writer. It was fun to be able to post it, and tell my mom.” 

THE DARK is about a group of inner-city middle schoolers, stranded on the wrong side of Manhattan during a blackout, who must fight through supernatural forces to get back to their families in the Bronx. Thinking about the inspiration for the film, Chad says, “I wanted to do a Black ET. It was very much inspired by ATTACK THE BLOCK, but I didn’t want something scary, I wanted an Amblin tale set in the city. What if ET happened in Brooklyn? Or THE GOONIES took place in Bedstuy? I wanted to see that type of story from a very different perspective.” 

The Black List is a great win, but it’s not the job. So, he’s going to make like Tiger Woods, pump his fist, and get back to work. 

To LA or Not to LA that is the Question

Chad works and writes in North Carolina. However, pre-pandemic, he still had to shell out thousands of dollars to Uber around LA for a week of general meetings. Now, though, a lot has changed. “I just turn on my laptop and have those same meetings on Zoom. It’s more possible, but breaking in is still hard. If you’re young and can afford it, I don’t know why you wouldn’t.” 

But, don’t go until you’re ready. “You need to create attention no matter where you are. Write and write and write, and then enter the Nicholl, Austin, get coverage, and get feedback on your writing, see if it’s ready.” He continues, “Get good enough first without worrying about your career. I wasn’t always good enough. Get better first. Then get a lot better. Then way better. Good enough does not just meet deadlines. You have to do good work under deadlines. Take notes and execute them well. Learn how to be a professional even when people tell you your writing sucks. Writing one perfect script is not what the job is. You might sell that script, and that’s great, but you’re not ready for what follows.” 

It’s not a simple journey. There’s no easy button when it comes to screenwriting. Ultimately, it’s about love. As Chad says, “If you don’t love it, why do it?”

ProPath Screenwriting