Quinnipiac in Hollywood

HQ Press sits down with QU grad David Rabinowitz as he reflects on his Oscar win and looks down the line for his next job.

Kevin Wilmott, David Rabinowitz, Spike Lee and Charles Wachtel with Brie Larson pose backstage with the Oscar® for adapted screenplay during the live ABC Telecast of The 91st Oscars® at the Dolby® Theatre in Hollywood, CA on Sunday, February 24, 2019.  Credit: Matt Petit / ©A.M.P.A.S.

Kevin Wilmott, David Rabinowitz, Spike Lee and Charles Wachtel with Brie Larson pose backstage with the Oscar® for adapted screenplay during the live ABC Telecast of The 91st Oscars® at the Dolby® Theatre in Hollywood, CA on Sunday, February 24, 2019.

Credit: Matt Petit / ©A.M.P.A.S.

Ten years ago, David Rabinowitz was just an ordinary Bobcat. Like most Quinnipiac seniors, he was finishing his last months of college – walking the Quad, eating Chartwells in the café while physically and mentally preparing himself for the “real world” after graduation.

The ‘09 graduate had no idea what the “real world” had in store for him.  

A decade later, Rabinowitz became the first Quinnipiac University alumnus to win an Oscar on Feb. 24, 2019. Rabinowitz co-wrote the nominated film for Best Adapted Screenplay, “BlacKkKlansman,” with his longtime friend and writing partner, Charlie Wachtel. The film, directed by Spike Lee, follows the true story of the first African-American detective to serve on the Colorado Spring Police Department as he goes undercover as a member of the Ku Klux Klan.

“When they mentioned our names (at the 91st annual Oscars ceremony), I think I blacked out a little bit,” Rabinowitz said. “I sort of remember walking to the stage, going up and standing up there. I didn’t really want the responsibility of having to say something on this live telecast that’s going out to millions of people around the world.”

Hollywood is known for bringing people up from all walks of life, then placing them on a grand stage in front of millions to acknowledge and celebrate their successes. But, Hollywood is also known to make people pay their dues to get there – working their way up the ladder rung by rung into the spotlight. Rabinowitz never imagined in the mere six and half years he spent climbing that ladder that success would happen so quickly for him.

“It’s been pretty crazy over the past year,” he said reflecting on how, in a year’s time, he went from struggling screenwriter to award nominee and Oscar winner. “A year ago, I was in the middle of this process of meeting people, being full time, but not having a job technically.”

Many aspiring writers, directors, actors and actresses make the move to Los Angeles to begin their careers, yet Rabinowitz’s started in New Jersey, creating content with Wachtel in high school. He continued his passion for media production in Connecticut at Quinnipiac before making the transition to the Big Apple after graduation. Working as a multimedia producer for The Wall Street Journal, Rabinowitz couldn’t resist the allure of the industry out west.

“I had a number of friends who had already moved out to LA [Los Angeles] before me, including Charlie and so, at a certain point you just feel like it’s your time to leave - I reached that time,” Rabinowitz said. “There was stuff coming out of LA – the LA bureau, about entertainment, and I’d rather be the one doing the thing, not covering it.”

Ambition flew Rabinowitz to the Golden State, but came quickly to a halt upon arriving when the reality of breaking into the industry wasn’t as easy as in the movies. He had experience in news, however entertainment was an entirely new beast. Rabinowitz freelanced motion graphic projects and corporate videos to keep active and continue honing his skills after the initial move. It wasn’t until he reunited with Wachtel, who had connections as an assistant for WME [William Morris Endeavor] that they got the ball rolling.  

“Up until that point, my writing partner and I had day jobs, and when we sold (the script) we were able to quit the day jobs,” Rabinowitz said. “We were simultaneously full-time screenwriters, but we were also unemployed. It’s such a long process, especially when you’re starting out and you end up doing so much work for free before getting any sort of job.”

Being an aspiring scriptwriter isn’t easy, Rabinowitz said. It requires time, patience and endless repetition. At one point the writing duo pitched their work to 35 different production companies over the span of three weeks, five or so a day, hoping that someone would option (a temporary contract for an exclusive right to purchase a screenplay) or buy their script. Even still, this pitching process alone is not enough to get many writers in the door and definitely not enough to pay the bills.

“In order to get the job, typically, if you’re a new writer, they want you to go off and basically work out the entire movie: first act, second act, third act, all the beats there and then come in or over the phone pitch it to them,” Rabinowitz said. “You’re not getting paid for that. It’s basically an audition to get the job.”

For six and a half years, Rabinowitz struggled with the insurmountable hurdles of getting a job and getting out of the free-labor business. But, in due time, their persistence did pay off.

“Handing the final draft off to him to edit that was a crazy moment,” Rabinowitz said. “I was just sitting in my kitchen, checking the formatting and the style, being super self-conscious about this thing I was going to send to Spike Lee.”

Rabinowitz, Wachtel, Lee and Kevin Willmott accepting their Oscars for Best Adapted Screenplay on stage with presenters Brie Larson and Samuel L Jackson.  Photo courtesy of 91st Oscars® Press Kits.

Rabinowitz, Wachtel, Lee and Kevin Willmott accepting their Oscars for Best Adapted Screenplay on stage with presenters Brie Larson and Samuel L Jackson.

Photo courtesy of 91st Oscars® Press Kits.

The duo adapted the novel, hoping that they were developing a story that would one day be directed by Spike Lee. Over a year later, they joined Lee onstage as they all accepted their first Oscars from presenters Brie Larson and Samuel L. Jackson.  

“[Brie Larson] was giving me advice like ‘This isn’t going to make sense for a long time so just try and enjoy it,’” Rabinowitz recalled after receiving his award and heading backstage. “I’m just looking around and it's just like Sam L. Jackson, Frances McDormand, Guillermo and next to him is Amy Adams and Charlize Theron and then James McAvoy and Michael Keaton and Sam Rockwell and Michael B. Jordan and it’s just very overwhelming.”

Rabinowitz admitted that a win on the biggest night in Hollywood does have its perks. The shiny statue may literally and metaphorically have some weight within the industry, but it doesn’t guarantee any future handouts.  

“When you have a movie come out and things are good it doesn't mean that automatically you’re going to be offered jobs,” Rabinowitz said. “But it does mean that the process is easier and faster.”

Despite the attention Rabinowitz has been getting recently, Stephen Bisaccia, a senior film, television and media arts major who met Rabinowitz while studying with the QU in LA program, praised the writer for taking the time to help guide him onto the right career path.

I think that when people find success it can be easy for their ego to inflate and become a person that only talks and doesn’t listen,” Bisaccia said. “David listened when I tried talking to him about my own ideas or goals, and it wasn’t self-aggrandizing. That shows in ‘BlacKkKlansman,’ too. He’s just a good guy and a true artist.

Even before the nominations, Quinnipiac worked aspects of the film into its own curriculum. Professor Raymond Foery of the film, television and media (FTM) arts department teaches the course, “Spike Lee's America,” highlighting some of the director’s best work. With the critical acclaim and success of Lee’s new movie, Foery intends to use “BlacKkKlansman” as an example for future students to look up to.

“I am delighted and thrilled for both Mr. Lee and our very own alum,” Foery said. “When the course is next offered (perhaps spring 2020), I will include ‘BlacKkKlansman’ as one of the films to be shown.”

Left to right: Rabinowitz, Wachtel and Willmott with their awards.

Photo courtesy of 91st Oscars® Press Kits.

The big win at the Oscars might have been a landmark for Rabinowitz and his future career, but the win also underscored his educational roots. While the major may have been called “Media Production” during his time at QU, Rabinowitz’s path to the big screen has set a precedent for future FTM students to follow.

“I think the QU film program’s success is very dependent on the students and their willingness to push themselves,” Bisaccia said. “The staff is knowledgeable, creative and open; it’s just a matter of being willing to make the most of that opportunity. Hopefully David’s win can inspire myself and my classmates to continue to push ourselves and fulfill similar heights of achievement.”

To future film students, as well as anyone else with a pen, paper and a dream, Rabinowitz’s biggest advice is simply to accept criticism and continue writing.

“Show your stuff to people, to friends, to people you respect, show it to people whose opinions you don’t respect, listen to their feedback very seriously, embrace their feedback and don’t keep writing the same project over and over and over again,” Rabinowitz said. “Keep writing - quantity reads to quality.”

In the wake of their big break, Rabinowitz and Wachtel have kept themselves busy writing. The duo currently has two feature scripts at different stages of production and are set to develop a drama series titled “Madness.” “Madness” is the first piece the two ever wrote together about the world of college basketball. They are also working on a spy series in development with a French production company.

Simultaneously, all of this stuff is right in front of us and then you have to be looking, three, six months down the line trying to get your next job,” Rabinowitz explained of the endless process.

While their work on “BlacKkKlansman” may have been finished after submitting their final draft, Rabinowitz described that the road to continuous work and success is never-ending.

“I kind of describe it as Whack-a-Mole. You have all of these projects, but you're not necessarily working on all of them at the same time,” Rabinowitz said. “Every project has a start, stop mechanism. At the same time, I could get an email right now from the producer with notes and suddenly that starts up again and I have to whack that mole.”

Rabinowitz may keep his golden statue tucked away in his closet for now until he claims he can find a more suitable spot, but that does not mean he will be closing the door on his writing career anytime soon. While he jokes that his success is “all downhill from here,” he knows he hasn’t quite yet reached his peak.

“I don’t see success as getting an award necessarily,” Rabinowitz said. “Yes, that’s a marker, but not necessarily for me. Success is career longevity and being able to do this for a living. So, the fact that the award helps that, that’s the good thing. If I never make it back to the Oscars, but I end up having a long career, I’ll be just fine.”