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Q&A with James Acker

James Acker

BS screenwriting & playwriting '16

James Acker Headshot 300 x 300

Congratulations on your Nicholl Fellowship! Can you tell us about the project and the process you went through to reach this milestone?

Thank you! My Nicholl award-winning script SADBOI is a coming-of-age drama that follows an emotionally-stunted high schooler who, thrown out of the house for being gay, has to revisit old friends and repair some burnt bridges all in the name of finding a couch to crash on. I completed the first draft in February this year, got some good notes from my friends and submitted a second draft for the fellowship in May, and spent the following few months fighting my way through the cut-offs. They announced me as a finalist back in September and a winner shortly after!

Can you share your path since graduation that's brought your writing career to this point?

After graduation Drexel in 2016, I moved to Los Angeles and spent the next four years working day jobs and writing when I could. Over that time, I read constantly and tried to narrow in on my voice. It was always important to me to have as much usable and diverse material in my portfolio as possible so when an opportunity came my way, I’d be able to put my best foot forward. While temping as a receptionist, I used my down time to write two novels and managed to get a book agent interested through Twitter of all things. I used that momentum to get some meeting with some Film/TV agents who unanimously recommended that I try to snag a notable fellowship or contest win to help me keep my foot in the door on the road to representation. I’d always known about the Nicholl Fellowship and knew that even making it past the first cut-off was enough to get you meetings, so I chose the feature I felt best represented my voice and what I’d like to make a career writing and sent in my application.


What do you think are the key skills required to handle and manage your creative career?

I was told often that breaking through as a writer was hearing the word “No” a lot. I was prepared for that. What I wasn’t ready for was the silence. After two years of writing and silence and rewriting and silence, I would’ve killed to hear a “No.” To hear anything. It’s very discouraging not knowing where you stand in a career you’re dedicating your life to. The best move I ever made in my career was finding a partner. It doesn’t need to be a writing partner but having someone reliable who is in your corner and understands your voice is irreplaceable. The best way to burn out is to go it alone. Surround yourself with people who are trying to do what you do and you'll keep each other going. Writers groups, book clubs, the writing community on Twitter, every connection I made helped beat out all that silence and kept me on the glorious road to my first “No."


As an alumni yourself, have you had an opportunity to work with or hire any current Drexel students? What was that experience like?

My first real job in LA was as an office manager/receptionist at a film distribution company. I’d spent my initial year out West temping and doing odd jobs, all in the name of putting together enough of an administrative resume to help me land an assistant desk somewhere in the industry. I don’t think my resume would’ve made it through the door at this company if it weren’t for a fellow Drexel alum. She’d spun her DILA internship at the company into a full-time gig and needed to find her replacement after she was promoted to an executive assistant. I truly owe this alum my career. She was a year under me in the Screenwriting & Playwriting department and I thank God every day that I wasn’t a jerk to her. You never know who will give you your first shot. Over my time at the company, I had the chance to give many a Drexel dragon their first industry internship through the Drexel in LA program. It was so surreal interviewing and hiring those kids because I’d been in their seat only two years prior. 

How did Drexel prepare you for getting to this point in your career?

About once a month, I realize a new thing my time at Drexel prepared me for. For starters, I think learning to live in a city helped me immeasurably. Philly is an excellent first city to live in. It’s not as complicated as LA and far less intimidating than New York. Plus Wawa. On the writing side of things, I personally hold that starting young writers out with the Playwriting curriculum is invaluable. The film buffs sometimes shrug it off but I simply would not have a career if Bruce Graham didn’t beat “Write What You Know” into my head at an early age. The big ideas and flashy premises will come but if you can’t make a two-person, one-location scene interesting, you’re going to get stuck.


What advice would you like to go back and give your undergraduate self?

Go outside of your comfort zone and take some interesting extra-curricular classes. Learn about French wars or wood-working or how to make wine. If you spend all your time talking and thinking and reading about movies, you are going to get very bored and very boring. Also eat more halal. They don’t have the carts in LA and you will miss it terribly.