VJ (left) and Justin Boyd
From Working 9-to-5 to Hollywood Scribes
Brothers Flip Scripts on Careers to Pursue Screenwriting Jobs
Things were steady and lookin’ rosy for VJ Boyd BA’02 in the years after he graduated from UT Dallas. He had a bachelor’s degree in business administration, he was part of the sales force at IBM and he was about halfway toward earning a master’s degree. So, he decided to do the only sensible thing someone in his shoes would do — he packed up and shipped out to Los Angeles to pursue a career in screenwriting.
Cue the record scratch.
Fast-forward a decade. VJ’s brother Justin — a fellow UTD grad (BA’06) and writer — has joined him in California and they’re both writing for TV shows.
The brothers, who grew up a stone’s throw from UTD in Richardson, have always had a passion for film and television. (Their sister April is currently a political science major at UTD. Here’s to #CometFamilies.) VJ was 16 when he wrote his first screenplay — PERNOMIUM, a short film about the heist of an unbreakable substance. “I read every book in the library on filmmaking. PERNOMIUM wasn’t good, but at least I finished it,” he says. “I did make many short films as a teenager and in college, but none of them were technically sound. The writing was decent, but I had little skill or help in the camera and lighting departments.”
Justin maintains his older brother was the first to dream of working in the business. But sometimes dreams take a back seat to reality. Ends have to meet, after all. Hence the time spent working for IBM.
But the desire to write lingered. So, VJ opted to return to UTD to work on a master’s degree in literature. That’s when he took a fiction writing workshop and a scriptwriting course with then-School of Arts and Humanities lecturer Tony Daniel, a Hugo Award finalist for his short story “Life on the Moon.” VJ was part of a group of promising writers whom Daniel mentored at UTD. “All have gone on to great things,” Daniel proudly claims. It was Daniel who planted the seed in VJ’s — and later Justin’s — mind about pursuing a career as a TV writer. The process isn’t complicated: move to LA; somehow, some way join a TV show as a writing staff assistant — “that is, a coffee getter and note taker,” Daniel clarifies — and write. Then write some more. Followed by more writing.
“From there, you work your way up,” Daniel says. “VJ followed my advice to a ‘T.’ It didn’t hurt that he is incredibly hardworking, proactive and generally a nice guy, of course.”
Chasing the Dream(s)
When VJ relocated to Los Angeles in May 2008, he was like any newcomer to La La Land, believing he’d have to pay his dues. The City of Angels brims with aspiring writers and actors vying for a big break. Thanks to a pinch of luck, VJ avoided the whole “starving artist” phase. “I was fortunate to get an assistant job within a month working on a show called The Beast with Patrick Swayze, which was the last thing he did before he passed away,” VJ says. “I had no idea at the time how lucky I was. I’ve had friends who moved out here, and even with help it takes a year and a half sometimes to land a position. At that point, you have to get a day job while keeping your ear to the ground for assistant jobs. Sometimes it’s about who you know. Even then, that may not be enough.”
After working as an assistant on a few shows, he landed a gig as an assistant on the FX show Justified, a Western-type saga with a modern spin that ran six seasons from 2010 to 2015. His break had arrived. Hired as a writer for the show’s second season, he stayed on until the show wrapped up. His episodes are memorable for fans of The Ticket radio station (AM1310/FM96.7) in Dallas. VJ sprinkled Ticket references throughout the dialogue he wrote and named characters after the sports station’s hosts.
As an admirer of classic crime noir and science fiction films, VJ dreams of one day writing in one of those genres. It just so happens that’s exactly what Justin does on SyFy’s Channel Zero, a sci-fi/horror anthology series. “I’m jealous sometimes that he gets to make up all this crazy stuff,” VJ jests. “He can pitch giant flies in his episodes.”
When he was an undergraduate at UTD, Justin almost racked up more hours playing pool in the Student Union than in class. (No worries — he still graduated with a bachelor’s degree in economics.) He stays in touch with friends he made during those hours at the pool tables. Justin says they all took the game pretty seriously — playing in university club tournaments in Texas and nearby areas. Justin even competed in the Texas Open Championships. “I got my ass kicked,” he laughs, “but I played.”
His passion for pool that began on the first floor of the Student Union would later pay dividends. “The script that got me hired by Channel Zero was about the pool scene in Texas.”
For a few years, Justin took nighttime graduate classes at UTD while working full time, though later he had to pause his academic pursuits because of the burdensome workload. During that time, however, he took a screenwriting class with Daniel and creative writing courses with A&H professor Clay Reynolds. “I knew I could do it [screenwriting] and I enjoyed doing it, but I wasn’t sure I was good enough to do it professionally,” Justin recalls. “I was also committed to being an academic.”
Justin eventually moved to Chicago, ending his hiatus from studies to earn a master’s degree from DePaul in 2012. During a stint teaching philosophy at DePaul while working on a doctorate, Justin got the itch to try his hand at TV writing like his brother. So, in May 2016, he moved out West.
“I realized that while academic philosophy is something I care about, it’s not something I’d want to do professionally,” Justin says. “It’s a lot more fun to tell stories than to write academic prose. If you have to pick one or the other to do for long periods of time each day, it’s not a competition.”
It was a bit of a change. Justin went from teaching about 80 students per academic quarter to working as a show assistant tasked with buying coffee for writers. Luckily, that was short-lived. He got a job as a writer’s production assistant — “the lowest rung in the writers’ room”— on the FX show Snowfall the month he arrived. That job lasted until the end of the year when his script about the Texas pool scene landed into the hands of Nick Antosca, showrunner for Channel Zero.
“I always tell Justin, ‘Man, don’t tell anyone you got lucky enough to write on a show as soon as you came out here,’” VJ says. “He’s only been out here a year or so, but thus far it’s been great. We haven’t lived in the same city in a decade.”
Justin lived with VJ and his family until last summer. The two frequently see movies or meet at coffee shops and write together, whether on their new comic book, “Night Moves,” or on separate projects. While Justin is prepping for future installments of Channel Zero, VJ is working as a co-executive producer on CBS’ S.W.A.T., a remake of the ’70s TV show of the same name. (True to form, VJ dropped numerous Ticket references in an episode he wrote for the first season.)
“I imagined both of us working out here, but I didn’t know if it was a realistic idea. It was one of those things you think, ‘Oh, wouldn’t that be awesome?’” Justin says. “It really wasn’t until shortly before I made the decision to also come out here that I thought, ‘Oh, wow. This is actually a possibility. We both loved film and television growing up — wouldn’t it be cool to create that stuff?’”