The Bricks of Breaking In: Writer Ray Utarnachitt On Finding Your Own Path
November 15, 2022
A passion for writing can spark itself in so many different ways. For Ray Utarnachitt (DC’s Legends of Tomorrow), it was making kung fu movies with his brother and cousins in junior high that lit his passion for writing. Inspired by his first family-made movie, Ray decided to do a much bigger sequel, but that’s when he knew he needed a script.
Utarnachitt recalls, “I really saw how essential it was to making this thing work in my little kid’s brain that I totally fell in love with it.”
With his first job in Los Angeles, Utarnachitt was further able to see the layers of what makes the entertainment industry work when he was hired as an assistant to an indie film director. It proved a valuable experience. He reflects that, “I went wherever he went, so if he went to talk to an actor, I got to hear what he had to say there. If he went to talk to a key department head, I got to hear what he had to say there. I got to see everything and really got to learn what jobs people had on a set, what the protocols are. What you don’t do. What you can do.”
It would be years after this initial job that Utarnachitt would land his first paid writing gig. Having been selected to the Warner Bros. Workshop, he was hopeful that this would launch his career. Little did he know at the time, that his first staff job would take years to happen.
According to Utarnachitt, “The program kind of imploded while I was there. No one in our program really got placed through the program that year.”
This is where persistence, patience and dedication all came together. Utarnachitt always kept in mind the Warner Bros. Workshop’s philosophy of once you’re in the program, you’re always part of the family, so through the years Utarnachitt would check in with the program, who of course always had a new class of writers they were working to staff. As a script coordinator on the first season of Person of Interest, he was fortunate enough to get a freelance episode. When the the season was winding down on this Warner Bros. show and with his freelance having gone over well, opportunity struck.
Utarnachitt remembers, “My agent and Christopher Mack, who was the program director at the time, reached out to Jonah Nolan and Greg Plageman and asked them if they would staff me for the second season. I think it was the first time that they were going to help alumni out with money from the program to partially fund a staff writer.”
Although this connection came years after his time in the Warner Bros. Workshop, this outreach ultimately launched Utarnachitt’s career as a television writer. It also highlights a significant lesson from his journey into this career. He elaborates, “You need to be patient. This is not something that’s going to happen overnight. It will happen overnight for one percent of the people, but that is not you.”
In addition to patience, another big lesson Utarnachitt has had to learn over and over again is that as a writer, you’re on your own path. He adds, “No one else is on your path. Their path doesn’t affect your path. The only thing you can control is your writing and how you carry yourself and the connections you make in the industry.”
Up-and-coming writers often ask Utarnachitt about how to get in and get that first break. The foundation all comes down to the page and getting the writing done. He suggests, “You do have to write. You have to have the material. I think a lot of people forget how important that step is. Even in my level I’ve had to go back and reshape a lot of stuff and finish a lot of stuff. A lot of times people forget that you do need the material for when the opportunity arises.”
All those years of writing script after script paid off. They had Utarnachitt prepared for when he stepped into the room. He comments, “By the time I actually got my break, I was basically an experienced writer because I had written for all those years. And actually they could tell, the showrunners on Person of Interest could see, they were like, oh, you’ve done this for a while.”
Recognition and belief in you by other writers also makes a difference in making those steps ahead as a writer. This is one of the toughest challenges Utarnachitt faced with breaking in. He further details, “The hardest part is getting people to take that chance, which is why I think meeting as many people as possible is helpful, because it will get you to where you need to go. It only gets you so far, but it will help you get to that area you need to get to in order to get those opportunities.”
When you do get a general meeting, go in prepared. Utarnachitt recommends, “If it’s an exec, you should know the shows they’re covering and you should be able to speak to at least a couple of them and why you like that show. Everyone likes to hear that you’re a fan of something they’re working on. Also, it’s another way to connect.”
Utarnachitt expands on the goals of generals, “A general meeting is more about who you are, what your tastes are and are you just a pleasant person to be around. More than anything it is what kind of writer are you. That’s what you’re trying to put out there, what kind of writer you are and what things you’d like to work on.”
Staffing meetings call for a slightly different type of preparation as they’re a little more targeted. Utarnachitt explains, “There are some things that are similar. You still have to be pleasant. You want to show that you’re not crazy. In a staffing meeting, a lot of times in a subtle way you want to sell why you’re the right writer for the show.”
He continues, “Sometimes they don’t realize that they need you or your kind of writing or they need your perspective. So if there’s a pilot or a show, really know that show. Really know that pilot, because if you can talk about it in a smart way from your POV, that POV may be something they realize they’re missing.”
Along Utarnachitt’s own path he’s picked some some valuable advice for both in the room and in the industry. He shares, “I think the best advice you have, especially in surviving a room, is every idea is a good idea until it’s not, until it doesn’t work, but you don’t shoot things down right away.”
As far as a writer’s overall career goes, Utarnachitt emphasizes, “Don’t be an asshole. I’ve only gotten as far as I have because most people don’t think I’m an asshole. I’ve seen people who are pleasant to be around and they’re able to survive because of that.”
Additionally, Utarnachitt offers, “Treat everyone with respect. Be a good listener, because I think a lot of people are talkers. Really listening to people and understanding their concerns, especially in a room when you’re hiring people for their POVs. It can elevate your story. It can illuminate other aspects of a character that you’re not seeing, because we all have our blindspots.”
As Utarnachitt’s career has grown from director’s assistant to script coordinator to staff writer and all the way up to executive producer, he’s found the key to developing a career in entertainment comes down to the same central element whether a rookie or a TV vet, and that’s people. He remarks, “It is meeting people. It’s making connections with people. In TV, writers hire writers. They’re the ones who are going to be hiring you.”
Emphasizing this significance, he explains,”Meet as many people as you can, because it’s those personal relationships, and I’m not talking about networking, I’m talking about meeting people, being friends with people, being invested in their careers and their interests, because it all comes around. I really am a believer in we are all in this together. I think rising tides lift all boats. Once the door is open in one area, I think we should all be leaving the door open for others to come through.”
In a last bit of advice Utarnachitt encourages writers to, “Go out and meet as many peers as you can. Be around people who enjoy writing, get into writing groups and really form a coalition of friends and family, because you’ll all be coming up together.”
He relates, “That’s how you survive, is by looking out for each other and sticking up for each other and telling each other about jobs. Saying good things about each other so you all get work. Find your community. Build a community if you have to and go into it like a gathering party, like a D&D party. You don’t have to be alone.”
Written by: Kelly Jo BrickKelly Jo Brick is a TV drama and documentary writer. A Sundance Fellow and alum of Women In Film’s Writer/Showrunner Mentoring Circle, Kelly Jo is also the Vice Chair of the WGAW Genre Committee. She wrote the Telly Award-winning film PAUSE and the Frank Lloyd Wright documentary, The Jewel In The Woods. Follow her on Twitter @KellyJoBrick.