First Person: James Erwin

Erwin received 'a pretty obscene amount of money' for a screenplay based on a Reddit post

It was on my lunch hour; I’d just gone on (a website where people submit content and then vote it up or down depending on if they like it) and saw a question: “Could a battalion of US marines destroy the entire Roman empire?”

I thought to myself, “Oh, that sounds like a fun story.” So I just started writing.

I started at noon and I was done by 1pm. I’d expected that maybe a hundred nerds would read it and enjoy it, and that some people would have had a fun lunch hour because of me. Instead, it changed the trajectory of my life. By the time I went home at five it’d had a quarter-of-a-million readers, a week later I had a manager, and a week after that I had a contract with Warner Brothers. They brought me on to write a treatment, and then a screenplay based on that treatment.

At the time the story basically just shot out of my fingers. It took the form of a diary, written from the perspective of a US marine who finds himself, along with his battalion, in the reign of Augustus. As the Praetorian guards advance, they have to decide whether to fight or negotiate.

I’m a technical writer by trade and was writing software manuals at the time. But it so happened that the last book I wrote was a 700,000-word encyclopedia covering every war, punitive action and military involvement in US history.

I’d also read recently about a Roman senator who had plotted against Augustus – all this just fell into place. It felt like something I’d been working towards for years – the fact that I’ve learnt how to write quickly and just start pushing out words. If I hadn’t had that apprenticeship I wouldn’t have been able to do this.

On the day it was tough sitting at work watching it all happen. I just wanted to jump up on my desk and shout at people, “I’m famous on the internet!” I was toggling between windows the entire afternoon. There was stuff I had to get done at work but at the same time all of this was unfolding online. On the one hand you’ve got thousands of people online shouting, “Take my money!” and “Keep writing!” and on the other hand I’m just sitting in my cubicle taking screenshots of buttons for a software manual.

After Warner Bros approached me I told my boss what happened and that I was going to be taking time off and he just said, “Go. Do this.” The whole experience has been 100 per cent positive like that. Everyone’s been so supportive – my wife, my colleagues, the online community. After I’d taken the time off work I was sitting there at my desk, thinking, “What am I doing, I’m a total poser, I can’t write a Hollywood screenplay, what is this?” and I looked back at Reddit. People were making posters, writing out their own thoughts about the story; they made music videos, even a fake trailer. That was important for me.

The people from Hollywood gave me a pretty obscene amount of money without ever having seen my face. I can’t say the exact figure, but the minimum attributed screenplay deal set by the Writers Guild of America is $110,000. And yet, out of the pile of crazy things that happened, that’s still way down at the bottom.

After I’d taken leave to write the treatment and the screenplay I went back to work. It’s a good job, I like the people. And it’s tough to write a second screenplay. I had an idea that was the right thing at the right time but it’s a little harder to make lightning strike twice. Still, I’ve got a manager, I’ve got people who look at my scripts – that’s more than most aspiring screenwriters ever get.

I’m working on a novel now, and setting up a Kickstarter campaign to fund it. If it hadn’t been for my screenplay getting seen then none of this would have happened. I’ve depended on the internet for much of my working life – for research, to land jobs – and this is definitely the strongest example of that. Without the world being what it is today I can’t imagine what my life would be like.

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